By Stacey Goodson, M.S.
Being a teenager in 2024 is hard and comes with its share of challenges. Teens today must navigate social media, unchecked hormones, emotional intensity, peer relationships, time management and high school… to name just a few.
Teens in foster care have an additional set of challenges. Not only do they have complex and chronic trauma resulting from the experiences that brought them into foster care, but they’re also away from family, school, friends and neighborhood, likely living with people they don’t know. I can only imagine how hard that must be for them.
It is not “normal” for a teenager to experience all these things and be in foster care. So sometimes, kids in foster care exhibit behaviors that may seem strange.
That’s because they don’t have the vocabulary to explain how they are feeling.
Many of the behaviors teenagers in foster care display may seem baffling to resource parents because parents logically know their teen is safe and well cared for.
However, a youth who has experienced abuse and neglect may still be in survival mode and using methods that helped them survive prior to this new environment.
As a foster parent for 11 years, let’s talk about a couple of examples of behaviors I often see when I welcome traumatized teens into our family.
I firmly believe when we understand the reasons behind their behaviors and what they are trying to communicate, it can prompt an entirely new level of compassion that allows us to continue caring for them.
Hoarding (Food and Other Items)
Hoarding by teens, whether it’s food or other items, is one of the more common behaviors I’ve seen over the last 11 years. They may hide food in their room, in their backpacks or eat significantly large amounts of food at mealtimes.
It was common for me to find numerous food wrappers under the bed or mattress. Once, I found a piece of pizza in a box under the bed.
Initially for me, as a person who has never experienced food insecurity, the behaviors did not make any sense. In an attempt to understand, I asked why. And the answer I got makes absolute sense.
I learned hoarding is a behavior that cannot be changed by discipline or punishment, but would only change when the child felt secure in their relationship with me (and others), allowing them room to heal.
When our older son was living at home, he would put all of the deodorant and other hygiene products in his backpack.
I couldn’t understand why he would take them all and not leave any for the other children. It drove me crazy, and I would get so frustrated.
But, as his parent, I sought to better understand why he did some of the things he did. When he explained it to me, it was so simple.
He said, “Mom, there were many times I was picked up by my foster care worker at school and brought to a different foster home than the one I left from that morning. I was worried that was going to happen and that the new foster home was not going to have enough hygiene products for me, so I was just making sure I had enough.”
Wow! When he put it like that, it was heartbreaking and so unfair he even needed to think like that, but it also made absolute sense. I felt a pang of guilt for not handling it in a more empathetic way when he was younger.
Substance use is another behavior that is common with teenagers in foster care. Some of them have been through, and are going through, traumas daily. They do not have the level of coping skills it takes to manage that much stress and trauma.
Let’s face it, most adults don’t have this level of coping skills either. For many kids, the meds don’t work, or they don’t like how it makes them feel.
And, because they don’t have a stable place to call home, they’re using substances to minimize the anxiety and inevitable depression they face.
Marijuana allows them to escape some of those feelings, even if for a short time. I am not condoning the use of substances by the children in our care, but I am offering an explanation and perhaps increased understanding and compassion.
If we expect them to stop using substances, it’s important they be given other ways to cope with their thoughts and feelings.
We can’t reasonably expect them to stop using their coping mechanism without giving them an alternative effective coping skill. This becomes a never-ending cycle of conflict and frustration.
One approach I’ve used over the years is that of a coach. I don’t try to parent them; but instead, I try to build a relationship with them first. This is similar to how I approached the players on a new basketball team that I coached.
Secure in Care
When we build relationships with teens and they know we care, we are able to help them learn different ways to handle some of the many things they are going through.
Also, when they start to feel secure in the relationship, they also start to mimic and mirror our behaviors as well as our responses to difficult situations (be careful with that one).
Just as when I coach a teen in basketball, they have to believe I care about them before they’re willing and able to learn from me and execute the plays we practiced.
Relationships continue to be the driving force in changing unhealthy behaviors with teens that have experienced trauma.
Building relationships with teenagers requires connection. Here are some ways you can connect with your teenager from foster care.
- Be honest and authentic with them
- Spend quality time
- Be an emotional container
- Create little rituals
- Show up and be there for them
Truly connecting with the teens who are in your care takes time as well as commitment. Being present is a good first step. And while along the way their trauma may result in the occasional setback, sticking it out helps set them up for success after foster care, as they transition into adulthood.
Stacey Goodson has worked in child welfare for more than 14 years and has been a foster parent of teenagers for 11. She has five sons and one daughter, permanently from foster care (some are adopted, some are guardianship). All but one of them are adults. In her free time, Goodson loves to travel, work out and coach multiple sports. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in human services with an emphasis in family and community studies from Grand Valley State University. She has a strong belief that every child deserves to have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves. For more ways to build connections with teenagers and behavior management ideas for teenagers in foster care, be sure to pick up a copy of “Triple Threat: Teenagers, Talking and Trauma” by Stacey Goodson, MS.