The main developmental task for young people is to figure out who they are and where they fit in in the world. Teenagers are learning how to be an adult and this transition can include becoming more independent, looking for new experiences, developing their values and exploring sexual identity and romantic relationships.

Identity Development in Foster Care

While teenagers do rely heavily on peer approval, their parents’ opinions still carry weight well into adulthood. Adolescents in foster care may find this task especially difficult because of the added stress of not living with their biological family. As a foster parent you can support your teen’s identity as they transition into adulthood.

7 Tips To Support Your Foster Teen’s Identity

  1. Listen to your teen. Learn about the things your teen enjoys. When you show curiosity and understanding, you send the message that you accept and approve of your teen (even if you don’t have the same views or interests).
  2. Acknowledge your teen’s feelings. Encourage your teen to express their emotions and let them know you’ve heard them, even if you don’t agree with them. Normalise their feelings. Most teenagers would feel the way you do! Teens may show strong and intense emotions and their moods may be unpredictable, which can lead to increased conflict. This can peak in adolescence and is linked to adolescent brain development.
  3. Be honest. When you are having a bad day or experiencing a strong emotion, be honest with your teen. Sometimes teens can be egocentric and find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of others. If you feel angry, then take the time to explain that you were not cranky because of anything they did, but you had a stressful day at work. Being open about how you feel can help your teen to read and understand emotions in other people (and appropriate ways to express emotions), and avoid misunderstandings.
  4. Build their ‘Life Story Work’. Help your teen understand their birth family and their earlier experiences and to identify things that make them feel safe and secure. This will help you understand their needs better and it will also help them build a self-narrative about their lives. If they have questions that you are unable to answer, you may wish to arrange a meeting with their caseworker. Remember, no matter what their previous experiences, they will still love their parents and being able to speak openly without judgement is important for your teen.
  5. Create opportunities for input. Encourage your teen to contribute to family decision-making. What should we have for dinner this week, or what is a reasonable time to have you home after seeing a movie with your friend? If your teen has the opportunity to make decisions in the family, they will feel their thoughts and opinions matter.
  6. Celebrate successes. Provide regular positive feedback about the effort rather than the end result. Rather than focus on being a great athlete, you can focus on the effort and commitment that they have put into training for their sport. This will help them see themselves as capable rather than in terms of being good or bad at something. Or, seeing their worth based only on the outcome.
  7. Help them find their ‘tribe’. Your teen wants to feel like they belong. Find out what they enjoy and encourage them to connect with like-minded people. Whether its joining up with other teens in foster care or attending a hobby or sporting activity, it can help build their confidence and sense of identity.

The transition to adulthood can be challenging, especially for teens in foster care. However, you can support your teen’s identity development through open communication, patience and understanding.

Want to become a foster carer?

If you would like to learn more about fostering teenagers, then please visit the Challenge Community Services website for further information.