Aging out: helping teens enter adulthood
Permanency is the goal in any placement. Every child needs a family—not only in childhood, but beyond. But what happens when a child is aging out of a foster care or group home environment?
“Their biggest fear is not knowing what to do,” says Ebone Kimber, program director of Children’s Aid Society in Birmingham, Alabama. “We do a whole lot of talking around them—you need to know how to do this, you need to follow these protocols—but we don’t actually walk them through those processes. As an 18, 19 and 20-year-old, I still relied on my parents. I called and asked them questions about navigating the bank, the grocery store and all kinds of other things. These kids so often don’t have that, so they are in panic mode.”
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR TEEN OR YOUNG ADULT NAVIGATE CHALLENGES OF ADULT LIFE IN PRACTICAL WAYS? WITH WHAT ASPECTS OF ADULTHOOD DO YOU REMEMBER NEEDING ASSISTANCE RIGHT AFTER LEAVING HOME?
Children who have experienced relational trauma often carry insecurities and feelings of being unwanted into adulthood.
“All my life I felt like I was a burden to people,” says Synethia Davis, who spent 18 years in the foster care system and now works as an Independent Living Youth Consultant with Children’s Aid Society. “I just didn’t like the adults in my life. They didn’t listen to me. I never said anything in ISPs because I felt like they were just there to bash me and plan out my life for me, regardless of what I wanted.”
Kimber says it’s important for these young adults to have at least one stable person they can call on after they are no longer receiving services from their state’s agency. If caregivers of teens want to make a difference and maintain a relationship with them after they transition to independent living, caregivers have to establish trust and connection throughout the relationship.
Paul and Christy Wilson of Wadley, Alabama, have been house parents with WinShape Homes for 21 years and have walked through high school graduation with 13 children. WinShape provides faith-based, family-style group homes and house parents strive to continue supporting children into adulthood. Christy says she and Paul do not have one specific conversation with teens about life after they leave home, but instead try to listen to their children and establish trust throughout the relationship.
“Issues come up during the process of applying for college or the workforce, and they will begin to reveal some of their thoughts,” Christy says. “At that time, we gently interject advice that we let them ponder. As a parent, our desire is for our relationship with our children to continue throughout adulthood.”
IF YOU PLAN TO FOSTER TEENS OR BECOME HOUSE PARENTS FOR TEENAGERS, DO YOU PLAN TO COMMIT TO A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CHILDREN IN YOUR CARE INTO THEIR YOUNG ADULTHOOD? IF SO, WHAT ARE WAYS TO ESTABLISH TRUST WITH A TEEN?
Listening, Kimber says, seems simple, but is often a skill parents and residential teams have to develop when working with teens.
“Open communication and unconditional support is key throughout a placement,” Kimber says. “Just listen to them. Treat them like an individual. These kids are not all the same, and they don’t all have the same desires.”
Davis says she felt like foster parents always put up walls to protect themselves from getting hurt or attached to her. She knew when she was not being treated as a member of the family she lived with.
“The boundaries everyone is taught to put up puts a strain on the relationship,” Davis says. “Their boundaries included withholding love. Every child needs love. Just love them like they were your own. Treat them as normal as possible. They know when you’re not doing it out of the kindness of your heart.”
The Wilsons communicate unconditional love and support to all the children who live in their home, but have learned that young adults who have experienced trauma need space in addition to support throughout an uncertain, tumultuous time in their lives. When they first became WinShape parents, Christy says she felt like she had failed if a young adult struggled after leaving their home.
“Now I know to just give them space and time,” she says. “When they get to this stage in life, they naturally want to explore what was demonstrated for them in those formative years. Paul and I want our children to know we are committed to their success and we will we be here during and after the storm. We have found that about half of the time, they walk away from us for a period. But as they mature, they realize we love them unconditionally. We can have even deeper talks at that point.”
Wilson also says she has learned to have honest, open conversations at home and in therapy about behaviors and traumas each child witnessed and experienced when they lived with their biological family.
“Looking back on my first years in ministry, I avoided a lot of talk about their previous life,” Christy says. “I never wanted to speak negatively about their family. I still do not. However, there is reality that needs to be discussed as our kids enter adulthood.”
COULD THERAPY AND OPEN DIALOGUE ABOUT THE PAST PROVIDE HEALING AND RESTORATION TO A TEEN IN YOUR CARE? WHAT POTENTIAL TEMPTATIONS MIGHT YOUR TEEN FACE AS THEY BECOME INDEPENDENT FOR THE FIRST TIME?
Unfortunately, Kimber says most teens who age out of state-run foster care have ended up in residential treatment facilities (homes like the ones provided through WinShape are ideal, but not every child has this experience), and it’s not always practical for caregivers or staff of these kinds of facilities to try to keep in close contact with each child they serve.
“Staff and house parents are good, but they often can’t have a permanent connection with each child. There are too many of them for that to be practical,” she says. “So we look for other people who can be a stable connection—who is that child connecting to naturally? It might be a coach, teacher or instructor.”
These individuals can have a huge impact on the life of a young adult, Kimber says.
COULD YOU SERVE IN THIS CAPACITY? IF YOU HAVE A CHILD IN YOUR CARE AND IT IS NOT FEASIBLE FOR YOU TO MAINTAIN A RELATIONSHIP, CAN YOU THINK OF A PERSON ALREADY IN THEIR LIVES WHO COULD?