Leaving home is a huge life transition for anyone; helping a teen age out of foster care is particularly problematic! My tips on how to help a teenager move out of foster care are inspired by a question I received from Christina Dronen, a foster parent and teen advocate.
Christina, co-founder of Finally Family Homes, advocates for teens moving out of foster care into independent living. The mission of Finally Family Homes is to care for vulnerable and orphaned children, primarily kids who are aging out of the foster care system, by providing the community, resources, permanency, and support they need to succeed independently.
“Aging out of foster care” is what social workers call an 18 year old teen’s transition to independent living. I lived in three foster homes when I was a child. Even though my experiences in the foster care system were good, the damage of being a foster child lasted a long time. I share a few glimpses of what it was like growing up with a schizophrenic mother and living in foster homes in my book, Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back. Below, I offer several tips for helping an 18 year old (or younger) teenager move out of foster care.
Christina asked me several questions about living in foster homes as a child. Before I share my answers, I want to share my absolute best advice for helping a teenager move away from home.
If you’re a teenager in foster care, read 6 Ways to Cope With Being a Foster Kid. I’m happy to answer questions about living in or moving out of the foster care system below. I can’t give advice specific to your situation, but I can share what did and didn’t help me.
My Best Tip for Helping a Teen Move Out of Foster Care
I was a Little Sister when I was 11 years old; my mom applied for a Big Sister through the Big Sisters/Big Brothers organization. This was between foster homes, and my match with my Big Sister ended after nine or so months. But that was a life-changing experience for me!
The most important tip for helping a teenager move out of foster care is to find her a mentor, mature friend, or stable companion, such as a Big Sister (or Big Brother), or adult mentor. This person can help with specific needs and problems – because there is no “one size fits all” list of tips for helping a teenager move out of foster care.
Having a Big Sister changed how I saw myself. The pain and shame of living in foster care and having a schizophrenic mom wasn’t magically healed, but I loved that my Big Sister liked me and wanted to spend time with me. I don’t remember how many visits we had, but I remember how she made me felt. Her attention and time didn’t help me move out of foster care as a teen, but it changed how I saw myself. And that changed everything.
I’m now a Big Sister myself — my “Little Sister” and I have been matched for eight years. She’s 18 years old now, and will one day move out of her mother’s home. I’ll be there to help her move out. I don’t know what she’ll need, and neither does she. But we both know I’ll be there for her.
If you’re thinking about volunteering as a Big Sister or applying for a Little Sister for a foster child, read 5 Things I Learned From My Muslim Little Sister.
How to Help a Teenager Move Out of Foster Care
Below are Christina’s questions about living in and aging out of the foster care system. If you have any questions about or experiences with foster care, please visit her blog or ask in the comment sections below.
What made you move into foster care?
I ran away from home when I was thirteen years old in a most unusual way: by calling Social Services and talking to a social worker. My previous foster care experiences hadn’t just sheltered me, they taught me how to properly leave an unhealthy, abusive environment. I’d stayed in foster homes with compassionate parents, warm beds, well-stocked fridges, and school supplies. I’d already experienced—and wasn’t eager to relive—the adventure of sleeping in hard cardboard boxes in cold back alleys of big cities.
At home, my mom was disintegrating physically, emotionally, and mentally. She kept going on and off her medications because she didn’t like the uncomfortable and often harsh side effects of the powerful antipsychotic drugs. She was also trying to hold down a teaching job while raising two preteen girls as a single mom. Her struggle led to all sorts of unpleasant experiences at home, ranging from physical abuse with wooden sticks to culinary abuse with margarine sandwiches on stale white bread. I couldn’t live with her anymore, especially since she was getting better at hiding her illness from the doctors.
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In Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back, I describe what happened when I called a social worker for help. I knew there was always the possibility of ending up in an unhelpful or even abusive foster home. I’d heard they existed, but I knew staying with my downward-spiraling mom was riskier than running away.
Calling Social Services when my mom was sick was risky; I didn’t know if they’d grant my request and put me in foster care or leave me with her. They wouldn’t remove me if they thought I was exaggerating or lying about her illness. And if they left me at home, life would get worse!
The social worker did a home assessment a couple of days after I called, and he removed me and my sister that evening. I wanted and needed to leave my mom, but it was hard. I felt guilty for calling Social Services and terrible that she’d be alone. I loved her. Living with her wasn’t bad all the time, but she was too sick to take care of us.
How was your experience in foster care?
Here’s an excerpt from my book:
I sat cross-legged on the top bunk in my new bedroom. I could touch the ceiling if I stretched; glow-in-the-dark stars and planets were scattered hither and yon. Maybe the kid before me was scared of the dark.
The social worker opened the door and poked her head in. “Why don’t you join us for a snack, Laurie?” she asked. “We’ll get to know each other a little before I leave. Your new foster mom is telling us about the nearby school, and your sister is making us laugh with her knock-knock jokes! The other kids will be home soon.”
This was our first foster home. My mom was in the hospital because of schizophrenia, and I had a couple thousand questions. How long would she be gone? What if this foster home was bad, like ones I’d read about? Who were the other kids and why were they here? Would my sister and I attend the same school? When my mom got better, where would we live?
I also had questions about me. Why couldn’t I just be normal and chatty, like everyone else? I could hear my younger sister laughing in the living room while I sat frozen in the bedroom. If only I could be more like her. She always told me, “Don’t be so sensitive!” And I’d try. I tried hard to be easygoing and fun, but I couldn’t be like my sister.
What was the move out of foster care like? Did you age out as a teenager?
I didn’t “age out” of foster care (when a foster kid turns 18, she moves from being part of the foster system to being on her own). I was back home with my mom when I was 14, and then moved in with my grandmother a year later. I left my grandma when I was 17 — not because she was unhealthy, unsupportive, or abusive in any way. I just wanted to be on my own.
If you’re a teenager who is moving out of foster care and you’re considering asking your biological family for help, read Tips for Healing Broken Family Relationships.
Did you feel you were prepared for independent living – if so, by what/who?
I couldn’t wait to live on my own! I’d been in and out of foster and other homes for so long, all I wanted to do was be independent and live on my own. I suspect this is a common feeling for many (but not all) teenagers in foster care. I wasn’t really prepared to move out, but I’m naturally optimistic, positive, and resilient. These traits can help teenagers move out of foster care…or they can cause serious life problems.
What do you wish you knew before you moved out?
Nobody could have prepared me for independent living because I wouldn’t listen! Teens — especially foster kids — aren’t especially interested in getting advice from adults. I was an unusual teenager because I trusted the foster care system, and the system didn’t let me down. Foster care was there when I needed it.
I wish I had a Big Sister — or an equivalent person. I had nobody to help me graduate from high school, go to university, get my degrees, start my business, move to Africa for three years, and marry my best friend at age 35. So how did I do all that? My faith. I learned the difference between believing in God to having a personal relationship with Jesus, and that changed everything.
What do you think teenagers who are moving out of foster care need most?
I think foster kids who are moving need to be treated like the unique individuals they are. Different kids need different types of support systems, resources, and help. This is why having somebody like a Big Sister is crucial! The foster kid can ask for certain types of support at specific times in her life from someone she trusts.
Often we don’t know what we need — both kids and adults — until later, when we look back on our experience. Most of the time we just need to fumble through, make our own mistakes, and learn how to forgive ourselves and keep growing forward.
How do you feel those experiences impacted you when you were 18 and today?
I always felt like I wasn’t as good as the other kids at school, in thee community, at the mall. I could never participate in sports teams, school groups, or youth clubs because I was never in one place long enough.
Ironically, I felt especially inferior to the biological kids of my foster parents. My foster families all seemed so healthy, normal, and happy! They were almost too good, and I was jealous of their position in life. It probably would’ve helped me to learn about their struggles and problems. Maybe their struggles were more obvious than I realized, but I couldn’t see them because of my own problems.
In Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back I share snippets of how I was negatively affected by my childhood. Even though I lived in good foster homes, I always felt unworthy and unlovable. Being a foster kid has a terrible, negative, destructive effect on a teen’s self-esteem — even if she knows it’s not her fault.
In this book I also describe how I healed, flourished, and blossomed into who God created me to be. I also share 50 Blossom Tips to help women grow forward and heal, no matter what they’re experiencing.
If you’re a foster parent, there’s only so much you can do to help a teenager move out of care and transition to a healthy adult life. Offering trustworthy companions and practical support for the teen when she needs it is probably the best way to help. That, and providing as many healthy, encouraging, inspiring female role models for her to turn to when she needs help 🙂 .
If you’re a social worker or social work student helping a teenager move out of the foster care system, you might be interested in reading Why You Should Get a Master of Social Work (MSW).
And if you’re a believer, practice your faith in everything you do. Let the love of Christ shine through your words and actions, choices and lifestyle. The Holy Spirit will love and heal through you, without you having to “try” to do everything you can to help your teenager move out of foster care.
Questions and comments are welcome below!
With the love of Jesus,