Raising the expectations for professional practice in work with teens in the foster care system
By: Jenny Stotts, MS, LSW | Executive Director, Athens Co. CASA/GAL Program
“He’s been through so much.” “It’s so sad what’s happened to her.” “He just can’t process all of the trauma.” “She doesn’t know any better than to act that way.” “That poor thing.” These are phrases we routinely use to describe young children in the foster care system when we begin to notice concerning behaviors. We are compassionate, empathetic and we easily recognize that the behaviors could be linked to the trauma they’ve experienced. We understand that the manifestations of maladaptive behaviors are really the result of what has happened to them. But something changes as those children transition into teenagehood. The rules seem to change. The words we use change too.
Suddenly we use militarized language like “AWOL” (absent without leave) to describe situations where children in foster care have gone missing or have simply walked out of their placement facility, even temporarily. Terming a missing teenager as “AWOL” sets the tone that the young person has misbehaved or that they’ve committed a crime. Subtly, it can alter our response and limit our consideration of alternative hypotheses, such as the child has been groomed into leaving with an unsafe individual. We know that teenagers in foster care are at higher risk of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Why do we use terminology that presumptively blames teenagers who may be victims? We hold teenagers accountable for their symptoms. And the price that hangs in the balance is their future. We use phrases like, “he needs to follow the steps” and “she doesn’t want to do her treatment” and “he’s very manipulative.”
We, as child welfare professionals, must stop dehumanizing foster children once they become teenagers. We must stop treating teens as if they’ve committed a crime just because they’re trying to navigate big emotions or because they’re experiencing post-traumatic stress or both. We must stop unfairly penalizing teens in foster care simply for acting their age. We must take care in the language we use when we are talking to teens, when we are writing our documentation and in the way we coordinate with our colleagues. We must apply a trauma-informed and trauma-competent approach to our work, including our work with teenagers.
Here are a few strategies for you to make a difference in your own practice:
Mind your words. Refuse to use militarized language and discuss behavioral observations in the context of mental health and trauma, when appropriate. When discussing progress and challenges, reframe through a trauma-informed lens. Gently confront or redirect others who use this problematic language. Honor the reality that teens in foster care are vulnerable and have learned, far too early, how to simply survive. Be patient and gracious.
Listen. Teenagers are often labeled as manipulative or dishonest for asking questions of multiple providers or when they share inconsistent information. While it is possible that a teenager may have a motivation for dishonesty, it is dangerous to assume this in every situation. Instead, consider that teenagers are often operating off of limited information about their case, so they may be filling in the gaps or desperately seeking guidance or clarification. One of the best ways to minimize this type of behavior in teens is to validate their feelings and their wishes. Gently confront the errors they share and redirect them with accurate and clear information.
Don’t draw unsupported conclusions about observations of behavioral reactions, especially in relation to visitation. It is often very easy to conclude that teens who display troubling behavior following a family visit should no longer have those visits. Instead, unpack that behavior and attempt to learn the true meaning behind it. Work with the teen’s therapeutic providers to develop a support plan to coach the teen to apply better coping skills when faced with positive or negative stressors, such as family visitation. This is a tough road to navigate as a service provider, but it will pay off by helping the teen build resilience to better meet challenges in the future.
Turn the narrative on the commonly used term, “attention seeking.” Instead, consider that a teenager who is “seeking attention” might really be seeking connections or support. Rather than focusing on eliminating the problematic behavior, instead investigate the underlying cause of such behavior and hypothesize ways that you might support the teen to eliminate the need for them to connect with others in a negative manner.
Give them a chance to safely fail. All teenagers make mistakes. Sometimes they’re rude or impulsive. Think about a time when you broke a rule as a teenager. A questionable piercing. Sneaking out to meet a friend. Skipping a class. These aren’t unusual behaviors for most teens. And most teens might be grounded or lose phone privileges as a result, but for teens in the child welfare system, these mistakes can compromise their future and the possibility of a family. Fight for a teen’s right to be a teenager and take advantage of opportunities to normalize growing up.
Be an ally. Follow up when a teen asks you a question. Share information with them. Check in with them about their life and be a supportive champion in their corner. Remind them of their potential. And believe in their potential. Don’t just say the words. Be genuine and find ways to support their coming of age as they heal from trauma. Tell them you’re proud. Let them know that you have big expectations for the person they are becoming.
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