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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fostering a Teenager

I just attended an orientation meeting for potential foster parents at Hands Across the Water.  I have attended this type of meeting before as a foster parent but this was my first time as a professional in the field.  My function there was to answer questions from a practical stand point as someone who has experienced many of the ups and downs of foster care.  During the meeting there were several questions asked about teenagers and their behavior.  Out of all the children in foster care the largest percentage of them are teenagers.  Agencies and the Department of Human Services are always in need of foster parents for this challenging age group.  I have four teenagers living in my home ranging in age from 15 to 19.  I would like to think that I understand this challenging group pretty well, but I am not going to say that without knocking on a big piece of wood.  What is it that scares us away from offering our home to a teenager?  The question at the meeting that got my brain hooked on this topic was interesting.  Someone asked if the state would reimburse them if a child damaged their home.  I had a silent laugh to myself as I remember the three distinct dents in my front door made by three different fists.  The answer to the question is that the home owner would need to access their homeowners policy as the state will not cover damages.  I actually have no idea what my front door is made of, but it is obviously not dent proof!  I should tell you that the dents were made by two of my biological kids and not the foster kids.  Teenagers fascinate me.  I used to be afraid of my kids growing up and turning into awful teenagers but now that I am living with them it is not the nightmare I imagined.  The first benefit of a teenager over a small child is that they can talk to you and tell you how they are feeling (they may not, but they can if they so choose).  The second benefit is that they can help out around the house.  They can perform as much work as I can and actually be useful (again, they can, but they may choose not to).  I love the fact that my kids have formed their own opinions about right and wrong and are not afraid to speak up for themselves.  Jason was accused at school today of stealing someones Ipod.  He has his own and is not a thief and so was very offended when he was called down to the principles office.  The principle further offended him by checking the serial number on the back.  Later in the day, the same Ipod was confiscated by a teacher and she proceeded to look at the content on the Ipod.  Jason knew this was his personal property and what the teacher was doing was wrong.  So he told her so and requested that she turn off the Ipod while it was in her possession.  I was proud of him for the way that he handled the situation.  He was upset but calmly defended himself.  If this had happened to an elementary age child, I would have been called into the Principal's office with the child and I would have had to defend the child.  I like my child defending himself and his character.  I believe what is scary about fostering a teen is the possible lack of control we have over a foster teen.  If I am fostering a child younger than 8 years old, I know I can say no and enforce the rules.  If the rules are broken, I can apply a time out.  Teenagers have out grown time outs.  I can ground them but what is to stop a teen from leaving the house if they are really set on doing so?  I ask this question from experience with my biological children.  My oldest refused to be grounded and would just walk out of the house!  What control does a foster parent have over a foster teen if you can't keep them in the house?  This is where parenting a teenager becomes interesting.  Biological and foster parents need to find out what the teenager cares about and what matters most to them.  This information can be used to motivate the teenager.  For instance, my son who walked out of the house, values his cell phone above all else.  I quickly learned how to shut if off without forcing a confrontation.  The cellphone company has a place on their website where the phone can be temporarily deactivated.  What a fabulous invention!  From that moment on, I was able to motivate him in the direction I wanted him to go.  A teenager needs to feel like they have some control over their own lives and control is in short supply for a foster teen.  Many of them want to return to their birth families even though the environment may not be safe.  The potential to help a teenager learn to make good choices and gradually take control of their own lives is huge.  Teenagers are a challenge but the reward for successfully parenting a teen is worth it.  

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