When people find out I’m a foster carer, they are usually full of questions. The most common ones being why did we decide to become foster carers and how did we go about it?
The next questions asked are normally about the children and or families (which I can’t and don’t answer). However, once they find out that I foster teenagers (amongst other age groups) the looks of horror on their faces are almost always identical.
If I’d said I foster green scaly aliens with yellow tongues, their response would be similar. At some point they nearly always ask me how I cope.
I must admit, when we first started fostering, my biggest fear was having a teenager suddenly arrive and not knowing how to talk to them or worse – dealing with violence, drugs, alcohol and anything else my fears could dredge up.
I imagined every tabloid scenario, so when we got the first call and it was for respite fostering for Emma, a 16-year-old with needs, I did panic a little, whilst looking calm and ready on the outside.
I was so wrong, and I still talk about it now to prospective foster carers. The teenager came to us so her regular foster carers, Jean and Malcolm, could have a once in a lifetime 3-week cruise. Jean dropped her off and there was an obvious bond between them which was touching to witness, especially the goodbye.
I had met Jean and Emma the week before, so it wouldn’t be too much of a shock for her when she came to our house. Emma had a number of complex needs including FASD (foetal alcohol spectrum disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Dyspraxia and problems regulating her emotions.
Emma was a joy to be around and, although she was 16 and had the normal hormones for a young person her age, she felt no inhibitions or shyness. She would walk down the road holding my hand, asking lots of questions, or singing out loud and was a happy ray of sunshine.
We did have some tense moments around contact with her family and her lack of inhibitions around teenage boys. She left having had a great time with us and I felt more prepared for the next placement which was a 17-year-old boy with a severe medical condition. Again, he shot down my preconceived ideas of what to expect from a teenager. I had similar placements which followed, none of which conformed to what I had expected.
One night in midwinter, the phone rang at 3am and Tina arrived accompanied by a social worker and police officer.
We had heard on the phone about her history of violence, allegations, and general misbehaviour but by now had learnt to take each placement as they came and try not to have a fixed view of what to expect.
Tina was small for a 12-year-old. She looked cold and terrified. We’d had an hour’s notice for her arrival and the spare room was ready with a warm duvet, new pillows, spare clothes and a few basic toiletries.
After giving her a sandwich and apple which she wolfed down, the social worker started going into what had brought her to police attention.
The police officer gave her a little shoulder squeeze on the way out and they were gone. In the 30 minutes she’d been with us, she hadn’t uttered a word. We introduced her to our family dog who rose sleepily from his basket and gave her a lick and nuzzle. From that moment on our dog and Tina were almost inseparable for the next 4 years.
I had many sleepless nights with Tina and she did behave in classic teenage ways, but my big fears of violence, drug gangs and teenage promiscuity that had haunted me when I first started fostering didn’t materialise.
She could be incredibly moody and had door slamming to a fine art, could produce a sulk worthy of an Oscar, and we had a number of issues with school that meant we were on first name terms with the Head of Year.
However, those times are not what I remember when I think of her. Tina was fiercely intelligent and had a deep moral compass that burned when she was faced with injustice for herself or others. She would make Hubby and I laugh with her sense of humour and she had the ability to grasp really adult concepts at a young age.
Tina left us at 16 to move to semi independence. It wasn’t what we wanted, but after several long discussions over many months with Tina and her social worker, she moved out with a huge care package from us and the message for her to call us ringing constantly in her ears.
It’s wasn’t a seamless transition and we did help her deal with a few tricky situations and I regularly bought her shopping, filling up her fridge.
We’ve had a few teenagers since, as well as younger children and babies, and none of my initial fears have manifested themselves. Yes, we’ve had drunk adolescents, smoking issues, absconding, and concerns about cannabis smoking, but we’ve handled them somehow and learnt from each experience and young person.
In my opinion teenagers get a bad rap. They can be rude and think they know it all, but they are also thirsty for new experiences, funny, and interesting. I’ve had the most hilarious and thought-provoking conversations with teenagers and am pleased I overcame my fears and prejudices.
Tina is not in our lives on a monthly or even yearly basis and this year we’ve not seen her at all, but she contacts me occasionally on social media and I made sure she knew our new address when we moved earlier this year. M loves hearing stories about previous teenagers which make her laugh but also give her hope for the future.