6 years, 4 teens, 8 lessons learned

A father who provides therapeutic foster care shares his advice with other parents.

April 03, 2017

Steve Combs and three teens he has fostered or adopted.
“Last Christmas, they all came back. We didn't plan it. But on Christmas morning, they were here!”

Steve Combs was working as an attorney representing parents of children in foster care when he learned that many teens were aging out of care without being adopted or having a support system.

Deciding that he could make a difference in the life of at least one young person, Steve became a foster parent six years ago. He adopted the first boy he fostered—who is now 20 years old and in college studying business—and over the last four years has been a foster parent to three other teens.

Two years ago, Steve got licensed as a therapeutic foster parent to work with teens who had experienced greater trauma and have greater needs.

Steve shared his experience and some of the lessons he’s learned with us.

“Eight lessons I have learned”

1. Don’t take “no” for an answer.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a foster and adoptive parent has been advocating for my kids in school. We live in one of the best school districts in the state. But the administrators have 3,000 kids to deal with.

As a parent, you really have to work to make them pay attention to one child. And if you are feeling that something is not right, that you are not getting all of the facts or your children aren’t receiving the attention they deserve, then research the rules for yourself and stand up to authority.

2. Hurt kids hurt.

Many children in foster care have never learned the proper way to express their feelings or the appropriate ways of resolving conflict. When they feel slighted, that they are being treated unfairly, or that they are being ignored or threatened, they lash out. That is their learned response.

Even when the anger is being directed at you, do not take it personally. Remain firm and do not engage them. Help them learn new behaviors.

3. Don't pick up the rope.

Teenagers in foster care—who may have lived in chaotic, disruptive and even violent environments—could come to you more focused on survival than on school work or normal household chores and routines.

In enforcing daily routines, you have to pick your battles. Ask yourself if it is worth getting into a tug-of-war because they didn't make their bed or they left their towel on the bathroom floor. As another foster parent told me, it can be a tug of war, and you must train yourself not to pick up the rope.

4. Understand the effects of trauma.

A child suffering trauma will not process events in the same way as other children. What seem like routine events to you can be a trigger for an emotional reaction in teens who have experienced trauma. Or, joyous occasions, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, can be emotional triggers that result in depression or other acting-out behaviors.

5. Learn their anxieties.

Children in foster care have been let down by the adults in their life. As a result, it takes them time to build trust and open up to people in their lives. I have been told by more than one child, “trust no one.”

Children may tell you everything is fine when in fact they are struggling with something. You need to learn their behaviors and routines to get insights into what really is going on inside their heads until they feel safe enough to talk about it.

6. Foster parents: keep an eye on the future.

As a foster parent, you may feel like your role is temporary, or feel overwhelmed focusing on the day-to-day needs. But your home could be a teen’s last stop before they age out of the system.

Make the extra effort to help them prepare for college or trade school, or whatever will give them a chance at a stable life after foster care. And even after they have left, make yourself available to be a stable influence in their lives.

7. It’s a long-term relationship.

When I was working in the courts, I frequently heard social workers say that adoptive parents gravitate to younger children because they thought they would have more time with them, and that older children would leave as soon as they turned 18.

My experience has been the opposite. They really don't leave!

Yes, I have had them tell me in the heat of the moment, “Once I turn 18, I am out of here.” But then they turn 18, and there they are, sitting at the kitchen table.

Being a parent of a teen—whether you are fostering or adopting—is about forming a relationship. More than likely, if they are in your life now, they’ll be in your life later. And the older they get, the more they will appreciate what you have done for them.

Once they move on to college, or to independent living, the relationship gets better. You no longer have to get on them about homework, daily chores or cleaning their room. Instead, you get to talk to them about their new experiences at college, their new job, their new relationships.

Finally, after they’ve been out of the house for a while, they realize that maybe you did know a little more about life than they gave you credit for!

8. It is worth it.

Being a foster parent has been challenging at times. But seeing how the young adults and teens have grown and matured over the years makes it all worthwhile.

The most rewarding thing is helping a teen or young adult rise above his circumstances to beat this statistics. Getting a child through high school and on a path to success—knowing that you’ve changed the course of their lives—is the reward that will keep you doing this hard work. 


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