Rewards and realities of fostering teenagers

Today’s blog comes from Alex, foster carer for teenagers.

“Yeah, whatever” is a response I’ve heard many times over the last two years of fostering teenagers – and growing up, many of us have probably heard similar things from our parents or carers, including:

“You need to be in by 9.30pm.”
“If you don’t have breakfast, you’ll be hungry later.”
“Can you pick up your wet towel from the bathroom floor?”
“Your teacher said you didn’t attend your afternoon lesson.”

I remember when I was a teenager and I responded to my Mum’s questions with the same phrase, “yeah, whatever”. We have all been there – staying out later than we should, leaving mess all over the house or missing a few lessons at school. But, the difference is, many of us had parents or others looking out for us and boundaries were put in place, helping to guide us through these difficult years. And what did we try to do with these rules? We pushed and pushed until there was an argument, ignored our parents for a few days and then made up, like nothing ever happened.

Fostered teenagers are just like any teenagers. They might try to push the boundaries and make some mistakes, just like many of us did in the past, but that shouldn’t mean they don’t get our support. They want independence and may like to do things their own way. But just like all of us at this age, what they need most is to feel safe and listened to. 

They also have similar challenges to other young people their age – school, relationships, social media and hormones to deal with. But they also have complex emotions as a result of their past experiences or traumas, which may cause challenging behaviour sometimes. There’s no way of skating around it. Even just coming into care is traumatic, let alone dealing with the circumstances of why they are there.

That’s where me, or you as a potential foster carer come in. We all find things challenging from time to time and just need a little extra help from those around us. What’s important as a foster carer is that you are there, no matter what, to support them if they are going through a hard time, help them to manage their emotions and simply provide a safe place to live.

To be a foster carer, it doesn’t matter what your age is, your relationship status, gender or whether you own a home or not. It’s what you can offer a young person that counts. For me, I know I’m pragmatic, unflappable and patient, as well as able to set boundaries for those who need it most. What young people in care need is stability, someone to be there for them, to sit, to listen and to not pass judgement. This matters the most.

Of course, fostering teens comes with its challenges. One day I can have a teenager scream “I hate you,” the next day we will be playing FIFA together. I’ve had young people trash rooms, girls coming home late after visiting friends and I’ve been called every imaginable swear word. Sometimes I think – why do I bother? – but, and it’s a big but, I know why I bother. Fostering also comes with huge rewards. The positive impact you can make on a young person’s life far outweighs the challenges. I know that even when it feels difficult and we are going through a rocky time, the fact that a young person who has only known me for a short period of time is still coming home every night, is a good sign. I also know that when a teenager can show me they are upset, fed up and angry, the relationship we have is working and they trust me enough to share this with me.

It really is the simple things that mean so much. One of the most joyous things said to me since becoming a foster carer was from a teenage boy, after a weekend staying with me.  As he was leaving, he said: “Next time I stay over, can I cook again?” A month earlier, I surprised him by asking if he wanted to do a cooked breakfast. I had already bought the eggs and bacon, in the hope that he was up for it. He had no idea how to turn on the hob, let alone crack an egg. We had raw egg, burnt egg, nearly-made-it-on-to-the-toast-but-ended-up-on-the-floor-egg, and then finally a fried egg with some bacon on toast. And you know what, it was half decent and it was the start of what has become regular cooking at my house, which has helped build the connection and relationship between us. 

This may seem like a small, simple thing but, helping teenagers develop practical skills like cooking is part of what being a foster carer is about. Helping them grow into confident young adults, to be independent and have all the skills they need to build a brighter future. Those wins I treasure because looking after teens can be, well, lots of “yeah, whatever” – which I’m sure is how my parents felt twenty years ago – but it is also full of so many special moments.

37 teens and counting…Bring on the next!

If you are interested in becoming a foster carer for teenagers, please visit: www.bristol.gov.uk/fosterteens or speak to our fostering team on: 0117 353 4200 for an informal chat. We will answer all your questions and explain what it’s like to be a foster carer.

You can also follow Bristol City Council fostering on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about fostering.

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