When my husband and I first began the licensing process to become foster parents, we both knew we would end up fostering teens. Sounds crazy right? You see, when I worked as a case manager for foster children, my heart was always drawn to the older kids on my caseload. It was always incredibly heartbreaking to me when one of my older kids would find our visits to be the highlight of their week- not because I didn’t enjoy seeing them too but because of what this meant. That the reality was most of these teens did not have anyone else coming to visit them or any stable, consistent support systems at all. For me, once I saw the need up close and personally like that, I just couldn’t walk away from it. Now, years later, my husband and I currently have two boys (ages 13 and 15) in our home who we have adopted. And it has been the most wonderful journey that I would not trade for anything.
Most recent statistics suggest, in this year alone, over 20 thousand teens will age out of the foster system with little to no support. This means they will not have support when filling out college applications, anyone to call for advice or when they need help, or a family to go home to on the holidays. The statistics for teens who age out of the foster system do not look good either. Studies show that these youth are at an increased risk for young parenthood, low educational attainment, high unemployment rates, homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse.
The good news is that it only takes one caring adult to change the outcome for these older children. No person, child or adult, ever outgrows the need for a family. We all need a sense of belonging. Adopting or fostering teens provide older youth with stability and a sense of belonging. These lasting connections and encouragement can provide these youth with the support and guidance they need to enroll in higher education, secure employment, find stable housing, and develop healthy relationships.
Teens- it’s one of those scary words in the foster care world often due to fears and misconceptions. I am assuming the fact you are here reading this article right now means you are open and willing to learn more. Whether you are here because you want to better understand the needs of older youth in foster care, you want to learn ways you can support other families or agencies that are welcoming teens into their care, or you are ready to jump into the crazy-fun journey of fostering teens- I am so glad you are here! These children need more people like you who are committed to learning more and are willing to commit to parenting teens in care, temporarily or forever. So, let’s discuss some of the many reasons fostering teens can be so rewarding, fun, and absolutely life changing.
1. You Will Learn Just as Much from Them as They Will Learn from You.
Many children in the foster care system have experienced things in their short life that most of us will never experience in our entire lifetime. Children in foster care have all experienced some form of trauma. This is especially true for older youth. Because of this you may find your teen reacting to things in a way that you do not understand at all, they may push your buttons sometimes, or you may hear stories from your teen that will just absolutely break your heart. Whatever the case may be with your teen, they will almost certainly help you to grow a deeper awareness of yourself than you were before. I know I have.
2. Teens Sleep Through the Entire Night…and Sometimes Most of the Day Too!
While I cannot guarantee that you will always get a full night’s rest every night with a teenager in your home (my husband and I have a few stories of late-night emergency room visits and midnight counseling sessions), but it is definitely more likely than if you had little ones. Our teens even sleep in until noon or later some days if we let them. This means you are sometimes able to squeeze in some alone time or quality time with your spouse.
3. You Have a Chance to Model Relationships Well So They Can Form Healthy Relationships Later.
For many teens in foster care, chaos, yelling, fighting, and disrespect are normal. The majority of these youth likely have not seen adults interact with each other in a respectful and healthy manner. As a result, these teens typically have no idea how to have healthy relationships themselves. Bringing a teenager into your home allows you the opportunity to model what a healthy parent-child relationship looks like, what a healthy marriage looks like, and even how to take good care of yourself. Our oldest has told my husband and me several times that we are the first couple he has seen that doesn’t yell and throw things at each other. Our boys also used to always get very anxious when there was disagreement, however with a little time and patience, we have gotten to teach them that not all conflict is bad or leads to violence and screaming.
4. They Are Old Enough to Help Around the House.
One of the many great things about having a teenager around the house is that they are more than capable of helping with things around the house. Having your older teens help out around the house doesn’t just help you out, it also teaches them responsibility and skills they will need in just a few short years. While it may take a little patience at first, after a few times of running out of clean underwear or having to redo the dishes because they used dish soap, they will eventually get the hang out it without needing much help at all.
5. You Have the Opportunity to Instill Worth and Value into a Young Person’s Life.
Can you imagine what it is like to be a child in the foster care system? For many of us, it is hard to grasp what it would really be like. Now imagine being a teenager who is wrestling with hormones, identity, and trying to fit in without your family or any consistent support system. This is the sad reality that many older youth face in the foster care system. It is no wonder that so many of these youth would struggle with understanding their worth and value. For most of these teens, just one person taking the time to invest in them, being a consistent support, and speaking truth into their lives can make all the difference.
6. They Can Offer In-Home Technical Support.
It’s no secret that children are learning how to navigate technology at younger ages these days. Can’t figure out how to set up that new printer? Or are you having trouble figuring out the newest social media platform? No problem! Having a teenager in your home is like having access to quick and cheap tech support. Most of the time our boys will gladly offer their expertise in exchange for their favorite drink or snack. Just beware that you might get a few eye-rolls in the process.
7. You Can Provide Support to Older Children Who May Not Have Any.
Each year many children age out of the foster care system (at age 18 to 21- depending on your state), without any support system. While it is true that lack of support does make these youth susceptible to unfavorable outcomes (homelessness, unwanted pregnancy, unemployment, etc.), it is also true that these same youth are left with no support when facing life-changing events. Can you imagine graduating college and having no family to attend your graduation? Or having no one to go home to on holiday breaks at college? Fostering teens can provide a sacred opportunity to be a lifetime support that makes all the difference.
8. You Have the Opportunity to Provide a Safe Place for Healing.
As we have already touched on, all children in foster care have experienced some form of trauma. However, for many teens who have experienced multiple placements, it becomes increasingly hard for them to heal from that trauma. Oftentimes these older youth will experience more trauma with each placement change. By providing a loving, safe, and consistent environment, these teens have a better chance to begin the healing process that they so desperately need. You can be a safe person for your teen to open up to and as a result, you have an opportunity to love on them and help them develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing big emotions.
9. You Might Just Become Their Forever Family.
You never know, you just might find you fall in love with that adorable, fun, sometimes moody teenager you said yes to bringing into your home. This is exactly what happened to my husband and me. I will not tell you that every day is easy or that there haven’t been days that I have wanted to pull my hair out, but what I can tell you is that I could not imagine my life without my boys in it. You may not see the impact you are making immediately, but there is absolutely no doubt about the impact you will make by choosing to love a teenager unconditionally.
Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.Josh Shipp
Other Ways to Get Involved
What if I am not ready to commit to fostering teens right now? That is a great question. There are so many wonderful ways to get involved and provide support to teens in foster care. Some of these ways include becoming a mentor, becoming a CASA volunteer, or becoming a respite provider. For a comprehensive list of ways to get involved, check out 8 Ways to Support Foster Families and Vulnerable Children.
What has been your experience with fostering teens? I’d love for you to share some of your stories below. If you have more questions about fostering older youth or about how to get involved, please reach out by filling out our contact form or reaching out to your local agency.