Monday, May 28, 2007

Building Foundations with Foster Teens

I just stumbled across the most inane article on building a relationship with teen foster kids. I won't give you a link because that would just generate traffic and it doesn't deserve it -- besides I'd have to find it again. Don't worry though I'm not talking about anything any of you wrote. This was from 2000.

Anyway, it suggested things like paying attention to what the kid likes and then surprising them with thoughtful gestures. Right. Because making traumatized, angry, frightened teenagers feel safe is just like making friends at camp.

It made me so annoyed that I decided to give my own list what I do, or try to do, that seems to help.

When kids first move in:

1. Explain the basic rules, including what they are allowed to do. Remember that basic rules do differ from home to home. So I tell kids these sorts of things:
- I have an "open kitchen." They are allowed to help themselves to food if they are hungry. I tell them if there is anything that is meant for a recipe and should not be eaten.
- I tell them the hours during which electronics are allowed.
- I ask them to tell me when they plan to get into the shower so I don't turn the dishwasher on and freeze them out.
- etc.

2. Have a list of basic safety rules, also called boundaries. Mine are:
-Everyone treats everyone else (and their property) with respect.
-Everyone knows where everyone is.
-Everyone contributes.
-Everyone does their job.
These are basic. The kids have to agree to follow them to live with us. Of course they will break them. They will mouth off, disappear, "forget" to do their agreed-upon chore, and cut school. What they have to do though is accept that these are the rules. If they show a basic refusal to follow them then they cannot live with me. We may maintain our relationship, but not in the same house.

3. Put aside the notion that good parenting means helping them to be better people. I know, it sounds shocking. Think about it from their perspective for a minute. Suppose you lost your apartment and a friend let you move in. Your friend might be fussier than you are about keeping everything tidy, and you will try to respect that because it is her house. However, when she decides that you need to exercise regularly and insists that you walk three miles before you can do whatever you want to do, how do you feel? I find that helping them to become more honest, considerate and hard working is a gradual process. If I have a part in that it will happen only after we have developed a relationship, which will take months if not years.

4. Remember that what is a big deal to you might seem ordinary to them. Think for a minute about how you express anger. Think about how you anticipate a child being angry at you. What is okay? What crosses the line? How would you deal with that? When my kids were small and they got angry they might say, "I hate you!" My response, on my good days anyway, was "I understand you are angry." When a teenager who has witnessed and been the victim of severe abuse gets angry she may call scream, "You f'ing c*nt!" The appropriate response is to take a deep breath and say, "I understand that you are angry." Then BE QUIET and listen. Don't take it personally. Don't escalate into anger with them. Breathe deeply and remember it is not about you. When they calm down, it may be a good time to explain that that language is not acceptable. Perhaps in your house there is a consequence for using foul language. Impose it calmly. (I'm not saying this is easy. G-d knows it is more than I can manage sometimes).

5. Listen to them. When they are ready to talk, stop what you are doing, give them your undivided attention and listen.

6. Don't push emotional closeness. They have been hurt and disappointed before. They won't want to get attached to you until after they trust you. That can take a while. Just give them a safe and respectful place to live and let them attach to you when and if they are ready. Remember that loving you can feel like an act of betrayal to someone else. It might help to think of yourself as a mentor, not a mommy (or daddy).

7. And there is nothing wrong with noticing things they like and surprising them with a thoughtful gesture. Go ahead, remember their favorite ice cream and pick some up for them. Buy the book because you know they loved another one by the same author. But don't be surprised if, especially in the beginning, they look on your offering with scorn, refusing to be "bought."

What about the rest of you? What would you add to the list?


  1. Wow,

    I'm so impressed. You always inspire me with your insights. I try to think of your writing when I have a challenge, either in parenting or at work.

  2. Good rules and something I should have had when new kids moved in.
    I'll have to remember this for the future!

  3. Brilliant. Thanks. I'm sure you know I need this.

  4. Good list. Your one about not making them better people is especially important. I think it applies to school, too. You can't force a 16-18 year old student to study or "catch up." You can make it uncomfortable for them if they choose to not do a certain amount of work, but it can quickly turn into a self-destructive gambit on their part to "control" you.


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