Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Questions to ask about teens

Someone emailed me and asked about what questions you should ask about teens before agreeing to take them as foster placments. I thought it would be a good post, and hopefully others will add whatever I forgot in the comments.

1. History in care: how long have they been in care, or in and out of care? How many placements have they had? Why did their placements disrupt?

2. Do they have a history of making allegations of abuse?

--This is a sad reality. Abuse sometimes happens. David called his social worker to report abuse two different times, and he was right to do so. On the other hand the fact that Miss E had reported nearly every foster parent she had had was one of the reasons we would not accept her. I spoke with Miss E about her experiences. She believes what she reports, and she even describes actual events. Her take on those events though shows some pretty distorted thinking (e.g. one piece of evidence that Mandy was emotionally manipulative was that she told the girls that she loved them).

--How your agency deals with this issue can affect how you will respond. Allegations of abuse must be investigated, that is the law. They may also be required to remove children from your home while it is going on. But some agencies and social workers will be kind and understanding and actually try to support you emotionally while you go through the process.

3. Are they sexually active?

--Expect them to say "yes." You need to know if they are responsible about birth control, have age appropriate partners and have sex in appropriate places.

4. How do they deal with conflict and their own anger?

-- Don't accept "fine" for an answer, and don't expect that they are going to be able to deal with this well. You do want to know though whether they are sulkers (Carl, sometimes), or do they say nothing but simply decide you are somehow the bad one and prepare just to move on (David, Faye, Miss E), or do they scream at you using words you don't even use (Ann, many of the respite girls). Or do they actually tell you that they are angry and give you a chance to talk about it (Evan and to an extent Carl). Some of course get physically violent or destructive.

-- They are going to get angry. Kids in foster care, of all ages, have a lot of anger. If they start to feel really safe in your house, if they begin to believe that you will not throw them away if they are naughty, then they are very likely to start bringing out that anger. Yep folks, if you develop a good relationship with them you will get rewarded by being introduced to their demons. Your skills are important here, as is the sensitivity of the other children. Are you a good de-escalator? Can you respond to someone who is yelling and carrying on by getting a glass of water and watching and waiting for them to run out of steam? Let insults fly by and react no more to "you f*cking c*nt" than you would if s/he called you a chair?

5. Attachment patterns

-- There is a difference between someone who is a very private person who tends not to let people close and someone who has reactive attachment disorder. RAD means that when they feel themselves getting close, internal panic alarms go off and they do everything they can to destroy your relationship. Ann has RAD. David just doesn't seem to genuinely attach. It can feel like he does, but whatever sort of attachment he has seems be something he can turn off as soon as he is not getting what he wants. He has little to no sympathy or even understanding of the feelings of others. David I can parent. I can accept and understand that what feels superficial to me is what is possible for him.

6. Negative or difficult behaviors

-- Okay, all kids get into trouble. What does this kid do? Does she break curfew or sneak out at night? Cut school? Shoplift? Periodically get drunk or do drugs? Does he have friends who are getting into trouble? Does the child hoard food or eat compulsively? It is entirely possible that the kid they are asking you to take really doesn't do anything worse than leave dirty dishes all over the house. It is also possible that you can deal with other behaviors. You do want to know what you will have to deal with.

7. What sort of discipline do they respond well to? I take a non-punative approach and it has worked very well for my kids. With some kids there is something they care about (e.g. access to the telephone or their music) that you can use as a reward or a consequence. Some kids have no "currency."

8. School, work, and organizations

-- Do they have a history of cutting? Do they have decent grades? (C's are good, especially for a kid who has had to move a lot). If they have had the opportunity, are they involved in anything? All these are good signs.

9. If you have children in the house all ready you want to ask if they have any history with kids like yours and what that history is.

If you have been caring for teens for a while you will learn what you can handle and what you can't. There are a lot of things on this list that I can deal with. I've learned to let a lot go. There are other things that I find I cannot deal well with at all.

If a kid has done something somewhere else, they will probably do it at your house. Even if you house is quieter than everyone elses, or you are a fantastic foster parent, they will still do what they do. The question is not just what do they do, but what can you deal with? And what can the other children in your household deal with?

Sometimes though the behaviors they exhibited before really were responses to conditions which will be different at your house. David cut school so much the year before he came to us he failed every class. He did not feel safe as a gay kid at his previous school. After we spoke with the administration, he did feel safe at ours. He went to every class that first year. That changed at the end, but there were reasons for that too. (For the beginning of the end, go here.)

I hope that helps, and like I said, I hope those of you who have taken teens will add the questions you have learned to ask. FosterAbba, Lionmom, Dan -- I'm counting on you. All others are of course very welcome to add their thoughts.


  1. Thanks for posting this!! I feel very prepared for when the CW calls me now:-)

  2. I would have to add questions about contact -- family, friends, bios, etc. -- and acceptable methods of communication. Especially with teens, computer use is a big one, whether via email, chatting, myspace or whatever.

    Here we have the kids earn computer privileges by doing additional chores. We do not allow any chatting (instant messengers) whether they are used to that or not, but we do allow emails.

    I'll probably think of more, but that one really stuck out to me right now.

  3. Great post.

    I too would add that you need to ask questions concerning who the child is allowed to contact. I would also add that you should try to get history on some of those people. Had we known that Ana's biological family were so dangerous, we might have turned down the placement. Nothing bad ever happened, but we worried about it a lot both during and after her placement.

  4. Good question and great answers!

  5. In regards to negative and difficult behaviors, I specifically ask about the following:

    cutting, running away, suicidal gestures, fire setting, hurting animals, perping on others.

    The first three I can deal with to varying degrees, but the last 4 are deal breakers.

    great list!


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