Sheila, a Buckinghamshire Foster Carer, shares her experience of fostering teenagers
In Buckinghamshire, we urgently need to recruit foster carers to care for older children and teenagers. We spoke to Sheila, who has been fostering teenagers with Bucks for 20 years, about her experiences negotiating social media, responsibility and independence when fostering teens.
How long have you been fostering?
I’ve been fostering for 20 years! I first started when I retired from teaching in 2000. I’d always had it in mind, I liked working with children and as a teacher I’d worked with many children with challenging behaviour.
Have you always fostered teens?
I’d say 90% of the children I’ve fostered have been teenagers. The first children I had to stay were teenagers who had autism and I loved it. I’m 80, so I don’t have the energy to run around on the floor after a toddler, so teenagers work well for me.
When a teenager first arrives at your house, what do you do to welcome them and make them feel comfortable?
I always give them space. Most teens don’t want hugs, I take the lead from them. I tell them “it’s lovely to have you here, my name is Sheila, what would you like me to call you?” I show them their room and give them an idea of our mealtimes without dictating them. I usually say, “we’ll be having our dinner at six and it would be lovely if you joined us”. I also leave some paper and a pen in their bedroom in case they want to write things down, and they often find it a way to express their experiences indirectly. As well as that, I like to leave adult colouring books in their bedrooms which can be a good stress relief for teenagers.
How do you deal with teens using social media?
Technology is very important. Teenagers need to be on social media, especially during the lockdown. We encourage them to leave all social media downstairs and not to take it up to bed – if you establish that when they first come into the home it’s not usually a problem after that. You need to monitor them but not by constantly asking what they’re doing, as it sets up confrontation. The teens spend 90% of their time on social media talking with friends. I’ve found it best to walk in and out of the room while they’re on their phones and get to know their friends and become part of the conversation. It’s good to have conversations with them about social media - ask them for help when you’re using it yourself, which lets them know you trust them.
How do you set boundaries?
I always say things like “could you just let me know where you’ll be, because I worry.” I never say “must”, instead I just encourage them in the right direction. One teenage boy who stayed with us wrote me a Mother’s Day card that said, “thank you for worrying about me,” which was lovely.
How do you encourage independence and responsibility when caring for teens?
Whenever I go anywhere locally, I take them with me to assess their skills at finding their way around, and we work together to find local landmarks so they can find their way home. It’s about building a scaffolding for them to grow around. I encourage them to get involved in We Do Care, Buckinghamshire Council’s Children in Care Council, which gives young people in care a chance to have their say on issues that matter to them. I try to get them involved with household jobs like baking, cooking and washing up, but I’m careful not to make it a chore.
I also encourage the teens to try out new activities they’ve not had the chance to before, like Scouts, dancing, football – whatever it is, it’s good for them to have something they can relate to and feel part of. Some of the teens have to travel long distances to school so it can be hard to support those friendships. Getting them involved with local clubs and groups will help them develop new friendships.
What is the most challenging part of fostering teens?
Of course, there are teens with issues around self-harm which is challenging. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone and that it’s not your fault. Buckinghamshire Council has direct access to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) who are really helpful, and there is a lot of training available. There are also plenty of other foster carers who have experienced the same issues and who are very willing to give advice.
How do you resolve issues with the teens you foster?
I can honestly say I’ve never had a major confrontation or row with a teenager I’ve cared for. Your relationship with them is so important. Children in care have often grown used to receiving negative feedback, so it’s more important to build them up. Instead of nagging them every time their room is messy, comment on when it’s tidy and tell them you appreciate it.
What is the most rewarding thing about fostering teenagers?
They truly enrich our lives; they give you a reason to get up in the morning. Fostering teenagers makes me go out to places, whether its into London or to a show, I make sure I try every activity I can to give the teens opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Why do you think people are nervous about fostering teenagers?
Teens get bad press; people don’t hear the positives about them. If you’ve got the chance to influence a child for the rest of their life, take it. They remember you like we remember our teachers, and I feel privileged to have had the chance to influence their lives for the better. We had a boy who left us about 7 years ago call us the other night because his car had broken down, and my husband went out to charge the battery. It’s about giving children someone to rely on even when they’ve left our home.
Any final tips to anyone considering fostering teenagers?
Animals help! Teens are often able to tell a cat or a dog their feelings and experiences before opening up to an adult. Animals provide unconditional love that these teenagers have likely not received before.
In general, I absolutely encourage it – it has been the most rewarding experience. I’m 80 and I’m still carrying on, so that must show something! It’s not a part-time activity, it will take over your life. Embrace it wholeheartedly and you’ll get the rewards.
If you’d like to chat with one of our foster carers on a one-to-one basis to hear what it’s really like to Foster with Bucks then please get in touch with us today by emailing us at FosterwithBucks@buckinghamshire.gov.uk
We also host monthly virtual information events and welcome anyone interested in learning more about the application process in a relaxed and comfortable online environment. Email us to book your place at FosterwithBucks@buckinghamshire.gov.uk