Children in foster care have a hard time trusting others, and this is especially true for teens. By the time the child reaches the teen years, these children have been shuffled from home to home and school to school. Why should they trust you? How are you and your home different from any of the other places they’ve been?

It’s hard enough to parent a teenager, but it’s even tougher when the teen hasn’t had much of a start in life. You now have to undo at least 13 years worth of hurt, anger, and disappointment. You have to teach him or her how to act appropriately, how to trust, and how to be responsible.

Teen foster kids are self-absorbed — from their changing bodies to their ever-changing homes. They feel sorry for themselves, and they build walls around their hearts to keep out fear and pain. They have been let down so many times that they can’t see any reason to believe you. (“You’ll just hurt me like everyone else.”)

Some teens will have  “suppressed memory flashbacks.” These cause even more anxiety and can send them further into depression. Reaching a teenager in foster care is a feat in itself. So, what can you do? Well, when you raise a child from a young age, you and that child have a foundation for your relationship. You build on it for years, and by the time that child reaches her teen years, he or she knows who’s boss, and who to turn to for help – YOU.

With the foster teen, you have no foundation. You’ll have to build one. Here are some suggestions.

  • Ask him what his favorite things are. Even if he doesn’t want to tell you, if you are observant you will be able to figure some out.
  • Surprise her every now and then with a little token of your affection. For instance, if her favorite color is blue, you might give her a small blue scarf she can carry with her. This will show her that no matter how hard she tries to keep you out of her heart, you are going to love her anyway. This is a first step to building your foundation.
  • The next thing to do is make a coupon book, just for him. Each page should say something to the effect of “You are entitled to one talk session on a subject of your choice — yes, even girls [or boys]!” You’re likely to get a laugh out of him, and he’ll see that you want to be there for him. Tell him she can talk to you anytime, with or without a coupon.
  • Your next step is to try to get her involved in the family. Have family meetings once a week to discuss things that need to be addressed. Allow everyone a chance to talk about things that are going on with them and a chance to gripe if there’s something they don’t like. Remember, teens are self-absorbed, and you should expect such pettiness as whose turn it was to wash the dishes or who left the porch light on last night. This is just a way of getting your attention. Don’t interrupt, and don’t laugh. Let her finish, give her the most honest reply you can without making her feel like her opinions don’t count, and then move on to other topics, such as where everyone wants to go for the family outing on Saturday. Meetings can be called by anyone, at any time, if they have something to tell the family.
  • The last thing I will mention is to practice fire drills. I know it may sound to simple to make a difference in your relationship, but it will work. Although your teen may get upset when you set off the alarm at 5:00 am, he will come to understand that you are doing it for his safety. Keep telling him that you care about him; you want to make sure he knows what to do in case of a fire and you can’t get to her. (My foster mom and dad did this for us, and I really felt good inside to know that someone was watching out for me.) Once every other week, when no one expects it, set off the fire alarm and time how fast it takes everyone to get outside. Good luck! Start building those foundations!