Older Foster Youth

By Ashley Phelan

During my time as a local agency social worker, one of my jobs was to help place vulnerable children from various counties into foster homes.  In accomplishing this task, one of the first questions I would always ask the placing county social worker was, “What is his/her age?”  This was a key and necessary question that needed to be asked upfront.  I knew that the younger the child, the higher the probability that I could secure a willing and loving foster home.  And, of course, the opposite was true as well.  The higher age, the more challenging it was for me to find an open foster home.  Whenever we (the agency I worked for) had homes that were open to older foster children, they would “fill up” at record speed.

There is a great need for foster homes that are open to older children.  A child who is age four and above is considered an “older” foster child – and the average age of a child in foster care is more than eight-years-old.  Most of the families I worked with were open to ages newborn to two, and occasionally would “stretch” to ages three or four.  It was rare to have a good number of homes open to children much older than that.

Through the years, I have found that there are several reasons why foster parents are not usually open to parenting older children.  The largest, by far, is unfounded fear.  Foster parents are afraid that the children will come with a lot of trauma and disrupting behaviors.  They are afraid that they will not know how to parent older children.  They are afraid of bringing foster children in the house that will change up the “birth order.”  They are afraid that the older foster children will harm younger children.  Most of these fears were based on myths and rumors, and not factual information.  Once I was able to share the truths and joys about fostering older children, many families found courage to step into the need and answer the call.  It typically turned out to be an adventure where God grew them in amazing ways.

As with any age, there are delights and challenges to fostering older children.  And, yes, fostering an older child will be different in some ways than you might be used to.  But, I promise you that if you commit yourself to being teachable and keeping your parenting child-centered, you will do great!  And, we here at City Without Orphans, are committed to being here for you every step of the way with coaching, support groups, trainings, respite nights, and more.

Here are some tips that I have learned through experience, and from experts, in regards to parenting older foster youth:

  • No matter the age, kids need to feel like they belong.  They need to know that they are precious and are seen, valued, and heard.

  • Older children will need longer to trust you and trust your care for them.  Earn the right to be heard.  Stay the course.  Don’t take it personally.

  • Teens need more than just good foster families, but a “community” that will support and show up for them for the rest of their lives.

  • You must honor everything that has happened in their life before they came to your home.

  • God is about healing, not fixing.  Stay in your “lane” – and give yourself grace!

  • Help and share with them vision casting for their future, which (as an older child) is coming up fast.  You want them to buy in and collaborate with you.  Let them know that you are “with” them – cheering them on and supporting them. 

  • Time is more limited with older foster children.  You really only have time to impact their hearts.  Concentrate on the most important of things.  Ask yourself, “What do we want them to be most certain of when they leave our house?  What’s the most important for them to know?”  Spend attention, time, and energy on these things.  

  • Become trauma-informed.  Remember that they are not their mistakes and that their identity is solid outside of their behavior (tell them this as well!). 

  • Older foster children come with more developed personalities and behaviors, and depending on how that meshes with your personality, it might take more time to feel connected to them.  That’s okay – but keep pursuing them!

  • Older children may not understand their need for a parent and may be used to filling that role for themselves, and in some cases, their siblings.  Teach and show them that they can depend on you and that you will meet their needs.  Always follow through!

  • For every year without permanency, most kids lose six months of maturity.  Beyond that, for every major life change, they lose another six months of maturity.  Therefore, all foster children typically present with a chronological, emotional, (and what I like to call) a “street smart” age.  Learn how to parent the “age” the kids are presenting.  You will be much more effective as a parent – and they will be able to reach appropriate “bars” easier.  Redefine milestone birthday events (i.e. a 16-year-old might have the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old and should not yet be given the responsibility of a driver’s license).

  • Empty Nesters make great foster parents to older foster children for several reasons.  They typically have a spare bedroom or two, and have more freedom in their life to really care for children from hard places.  They miss the joy that children bring into the home, and are excited to bring it back while providing a safe and loving home to children in need.  Empty nesters are patient and know what it takes to parent well.