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7 tips for getting to know a teen you are fostering or adopting

In this guest blog post, counselors and therapists at Alternative Family Services share suggestions for engaging teens.

You’ve heard that the need for families for teens in foster care is great, and you want to do something to help. But you’ve spent time with teens, and in fact, you were a teenager yourself once! So you know that talking with kids at this age can be tough.

We wrote these seven tips based on our work with children in foster care, but the majority of this advice applies to communicating with any young person.

1. Channel your inner plant. Using the “potted plant” style of communication with adolescents advocated by psychologist Lisa Damour means being steady, always having a consistent presence, and being there when you need to, but not in their face all the time. While this is prudent advice for any teen, it’s especially ideal for youth that may have lacked consistent supports in their past.

In this New York Times article, the psychologist writes:

By their nature, adolescents aren’t always on board with our plans for making the most of family time and they aren’t always in the mood to chat. Happily, the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.

Damour goes on to explain that research on parent-child attachment has demonstrated that children find the presence of an adult reassuring. She suggests that teens, like toddlers, may feel most at ease when parents “balance active engagement with detached availability.”

2. Ask open-ended questions. This way teens can’t just rely on simple, one-word answers. The format of the question itself gives them the space they may need to fully articulate themselves. Be interested and curious, but be careful to not pry or they may clam up. Consider framing questions with “I wonder…” to show curiosity. After all, the last thing any teen wants is an adult asking them too many questions about their personal lives.

3. Talk while engaged in an activity. It could be driving in the car, eating a meal, playing a game or other favorite activity. This way, the conversation can flow more organically and won’t feel like an interrogation. The activity can also help everyone feel more relaxed, which will help the conversations move along.

4. Be real! Speak with them and not at them. Be authentic as possible. Teens know when you’re being fake. Talk to them like you would anyone else.

5. Let them be the expert. Ask their advice about something. Teens are far more likely to open up and talk with you about topics they care a lot about—like technology, music, and sports. Letting them direct the dialog by sharing their knowledge and experience can give them a way to open up.

6. Briefly share something about yourself. Conversations are usually two sided. No teen wants to be interrogated or lectured. Provide an opportunity to let them get to know you better. But, don’t just drone on and on. If you start to feel like economics teacher Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then you’re doing it wrong.

Sharing feelings—even negative feelings—is fine! For example, you might talk about what you struggled with as a teenager or a challenge you overcame at their age. Or you might reflect on what you really felt during a shared experience, like anger at someone who cut you both off in a line or guilt about dropping an item at the grocery store.

7. If they don’t want to talk, don’t make them. If you’re not getting a response, just say “I’ll check back in later”—and then actually check back. This shows that you’re really listening and that you’ll be consistent and available for them, which is exactly what many kids in foster care really need from you.

Getting to know a teenager is a journey. Being thoughtful and considerate of their life experiences and needs when communicating with them is a great first step.