Walking through life with your foster teens

I just posted a new article to LinkedIn on walking through life with your foster teens. Please like, share, and comment! Here’s a snippet:

One of the most rewarding but challenging things about being a foster parent is walking through life with your teens—sometimes through the mud—as they charge headlong into adulthood. So many of the kids who have been in our home over the years, including their birth family, have become embedded in our family’s lives and hearts.

Some connected easily, and some took a lot of intentional effort to form any connection at all. Some have healed from the traumas of their childhood better than others. Some still carry a lot of that baggage, and that’s understandable. With some, we thought maybe we had failed at maintaining those all-important lifetime connections, until they came back later to resume the relationship as an adult. Every relationship is starkly different.

We try to communicate clearly to kids coming into our home that they are loved, and that we want to be there for them for the rest of their life. We don’t leave that unsaid. We come right out and say it, and most “get it” pretty quickly. Some don’t. Some are still learning to trust adults, and won’t believe the words “I love you” for many years to come.

Kevin Harper is the author of the upcoming book Foster Parenting Teens. He’s also a foster parent trainer, speaker, and mentor. One of his daughters has written a fantastic novel about a girl who grew up in foster care, and he’s shamelessly asking you to buy this book on Amazon today. It’s called More To Me, by Saty Cornelius.

Parental controls for foster parents

Parental Controls for Foster Parents

Take back control of your home network

The problem with technology

Sometimes we talk as if our modern parenting culture has a technology problem. As a bit of a geek, I take offense to that. I think technology is a tool, not inherently a problem. Tools can be used for good things or bad things. But it’s abundantly clear that our culture has a problem managing its technology.

More accurately, our technology-saturated culture really has a parenting problem, not the other way around. We are so inundated with technology that many of us just give up trying to manage it and forget that our job is really to parent our kids, not become an IT Manager or Network Administrator. Many of us have been lulled into complacency, figuring that kids today are just doomed to grow up in a hyper-connected world. After all, they are “digital natives,” right? There’s nothing we can do about it, so we accept it.

Please don’t succumb to this cultural narrative. Kids still need parents. They still need to learn boundaries and self-control. Abdicating our responsibility and blindly accepting the inevitability of this hyper-connected world is simply not going to produce good adults. We need to re-assert our parental roles in the culture, equip ourselves for the job, and own it. Crush it. Kill it. Because despite the pushback we may get from our kids, they are counting on it.

Addictive cell phone usage rewires the neural pathways in the brain

Addictive cell phone usage rewires the neural pathways in the brain

The story of Jaid and Paul

One young girl and her brother we had in our home for a short time, whom I’ll call Jaid and Paul, really crystallized our culture’s lack of parenting skills for me in the area of technology. At 11 years old, Jaid had been given a smartphone with no parental boundaries, rules, or oversight. Her brother Paul, although 16, was mentally about the age of five, and also had his own smartphone with no restrictions. To make matters worse, the adults lived in one trailer, and Jaid and her brother in a separate one. Both teens had possession their phones around the clock, and believe me, they used them around the clock.

Jaid and Paul were a mess upon coming into our home. I’ve never seen a child so addicted to her phone as Jaid. Our house rules were that phones needed to be docked upstairs at night. She tried to argue subtly at first.

“I need it for my music so I can go to sleep,” she would say. We gave her a radio, and you would have thought the world was going to end.

“I don’t feel safe without it.” This one came close to getting us, because it’s true, kids do need to feel safe, and a phone can give them that security. But we knew this was just a ruse to get on social media all night, so we made it clear that we would dial our phone if she wanted to talk to her parents on speaker mode or to her social worker. Fortunately, we had built enough good will with her dad that he supported us with these boundaries.

Paul would actually become violent (remember, he’s a five year old in a 16 year old body) even at the suggestion that we needed to scale back phone usage. He would pace the floor and threaten violence if we didn’t let him have his phone. Of course, he didn’t know better at the mental age of five.

The research

Research shows that kids (and adults, really) are prone to cellphone addiction. There is actually a dopamine release in our brains every time we check notifications, and it’s every bit as addictive as drugs. In fact, search online for treatment programs specializing in treating kids with phone addictions, and you’ll find plenty of them. It’s sad, really.

Psychologists say kids’ brains are not developed enough to handle unfettered access to their phones, and in fact, unfettered access physiologically rewires the neural pathways in their brains (and ours, if we’re honest). The answer is not to throw out technology, but to safeguard it from becoming the master of you and your children. And to do that, you have to first be the master of it.

But that is hard to do. I’m a reasonably tech-savvy parent, and there are time when I’ve really struggled with managing my ever-growing network of computers, tablets, smart phones, and other devices with appropriate parental controls. If it’s hard for me, I can’t even imagine how overwhelmed a single parent with no IT experience must be in the face of this task.

The solution doesn’t have to be complicated

I’ve found a tool for parents and foster parents to mange their technology that I think will give you hope. It’s called Circle by Disney, and it truly is plug and play. You just plug a small cube into your router at home, and immediately start setting it up. It doesn’t slow down the network, because it doesn’t funnel traffic through it—it merely taps into your own router’s permissions settings and “automagically” works. One of the coolest features is that you don’t even need to have your kids’ devices in your hands. This means you can even set up parental controls over their friends’ phones if they join your home network. As a foster parent, especially if we have other kids in the home, this is an amazing benefit. What good is it to make sure your own child’s phone is monitored safely, if a new kid in the home can access whatever they want and share it with them? As a foster parent, I assert my right to keep my family members safe, and Circle is already making that job much easier for me.

Why this is essential for foster parents

“I just went on my phone and turned off both of the girls’ Wi-Fi access. Problem solved. No argument, no confrontation about handing over the phone, and in fact, the whole mood of the room remained quite pleasant.”

Foster parents are often told we can’t take a child’s phone, because it’s their personal property. That depends on the agency and the state, of course, but I disagree completely with this point of view. We have gotten permission from time to time—both from social workers and birth family—to actually ban a phone from our home.

But let’s just start with the premise that you can’t physically remove a foster child’s phone from their possession. Even so, I do have the right and the obligation to parent them. I’ve been entrusted with their parenting, and I take that seriously. That means I need to be able to place limits on phone usage, and sometimes shut it off altogether.

Another real-life foster story

So how does Circle by Disney help? Well, I’ll tell you another story. One of our previous foster daughters wanted to spend the weekend with us. We had just bought Circle for $99, and I was setting it up that very weekend. As soon as she entered the house (her phone already knew our Wi-Fi password from previous visits), I received a notification through the Circle App on my Android that another device had joined my network. Very cool, I thought. I’m liking Circle already.

I immediately named her device and assigned it to the profile I created for her, all without ever having her device in my hands. I then set her profile with appropriate parental controls and time restrictions. Problem solved. We went on about our day.

Here’s the interesting part.

She invited a friend over from church for the afternoon, who also happened to be in foster care. The girls headed to the game room downstairs after we got home, and before long, I received a notification that a new device had joined my network. Not a big deal, I thought. I’ll have a discreet conversation with her later about sharing my Wi-Fi password without permission.

Since I knew a little of the history of our guest, though, I thought I’d check in with her foster dad and make sure he was on board with her having a phone. Uh oh—the answer was no. He had taken away her phone privileges a few days ago. Now what?

Set boundaries while preserving the relationship

“I didn’t even have to accuse her of lying. I just made the executive decision that the Internet would be turned off for the next couple of hours, and you know what? Their heads didn’t even explode.”

I let our guest know that her foster dad said she’s not supposed to have a phone. That’s when she did what most cornered teens do—especially teens in foster care, who are accustomed to relying on their own ingenuity for survival. She lied and said she didn’t have a phone. Even though I could have told her the time it showed up on the network, what kind of phone it was, and what apps she was using, she denied having a phone at all.

You might think that Circle had paid for itself by that point, and you’d be right. But this is where Circle took me from a satisfied customer to a delighted customer. I just went on my phone and turned off both of the girls’ Internet access. Problem solved. No argument, no confrontation about handing over the phone, and in fact, the whole mood of the room remained quite pleasant. I didn’t even have to accuse her of lying. I just made the executive decision that the Internet would be turned off for the next couple of hours, and you know what? Their heads didn’t even explode. Shocking, I know.

Using Rewards and Bedtime to manage time online

There are more really practical features of Circle I’ve discovered after using it for a couple of weeks. One really cool one is that I can reward my kids with more time, later bedtimes, and even limit overall time spent on their devices. For instance, I had three younger kids watching a kid-friendly Netflix show on a laptop. I had already told them I’d let them stay up later than normal as a reward for doing a really good job of cleanup earlier, but Circle was enforcing my preset bedtime for the Chromebook they were on. I simply opened up the Circle app on my Android, rewarded that profile a later bedtime, and it was done. I didn’t have to set a timer, or physically repossess the laptop when the new bedtime was up. When their time was up, the Internet turned off, and they brought the laptop back to me. What else could they do with it? No hassle, no fuss.

I can also set time limits for a profile so that a child can spend no more than X number of hours online total. When that time limit has been reached, even if it’s before bedtime, their Internet shuts off. The same is true for Off Time. You can schedule Off Time in advance to ensure that kids can’t be on their phones at the dinner table, or some other pre-arranged period of time.

The Pause button

One of the greatest features of Circle is the Pause button. There is a whole-house pause button to shut down the entire Internet immediately. I can think of more than one time when this would have been very useful in the course of parenting teens and foster teens. You can also pause specific profiles, which is great. But there may be a time when you need to get everyone’s attention—to stop and clean the house, let’s say. Just pause the Internet. I promise you, they’ll be looking for you in no time!

This is the true beauty of Circle—it helps me set boundaries while preserving as much good will as possible in the sometimes new and fragile relationships in a foster family. I am more than willing to man up and tell my kids no when I need to. But I’ve learned over 25 years of parenting that how you say no—sometimes in the form of “yes, but…”—is a lot more effective at getting kids to respond positively. Circle lets me do that with fewer confrontations.

Limitations of Circle

All technology has limitations, and Circle does have a few. For the price and ease of use, it far exceeded my expectations, but there are some things it does not do. It won’t send you copies of text messages or photos, for instance. While it does record URLs of Internet traffic, it’s not spyware, and it is not a keystroke capturing system.

For that reason, I still recommend asserting your parental authority to have phones docked in your bedroom at night, and you get their screenlock acccess and other passwords to spot check. A good rule of thumb in my home is one I borrowed from Ronal Reagan during the Cold War: “Trust but verify.” My teens all seem to get what that meens, and the more trust we have built up, the less I feel the need to verify.

Can a devious teen still hide things from you? Of course. But never cede authority for that technology over to a child’s own discretion—because they don’t have the wisdom to exercise discretion yet. That comes from experience, teaching, and mentoring. And that ball is squarely in your court.

Circle also doesn’t monitor or restrict mobile plan data (as opposed to Wi-Fi data) out of the box. That requires an additional subscription service, but it’s very reasonable (I think it was $5/mo. per device last I checked). I will write more on that functionality when I get a chance to try it out. But most foster teens coming into my home have Wi-Fi only phones, or plans with such limited data that they needed Wi-Fi for any substantial use.

Conclusion

I am reasonably tech-savvy when it comes to my home network. I’m even somewhat of a security and privacy buff, yet it’s hard even for me to manage my own network competently. There are so many moving parts that I often shake my head at the enormity of the task for parents who don’t have an adult member of the family who is reasonably tech-proficient. (I say “adult” because I’ve talked to many parents who let their teens manage their network—which sort of defeats the point of parental controls). I can’t imagine how these parents must feel, other than completely overwhelmed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Parents and foster parents—try Circle. You won’t be disappointed!

What questions should I ask the social worker before accepting a foster care placement?

A successful placement starts with getting as much information about the child as possible

A successful placement starts with getting as much information about the child as possible

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that, by far, the most important moment in determining the success of a placement is the first phone call from the social worker. That is the moment where the social worker and foster parent have the opportunity to communicate most freely and clearly. Foster parents shouldn’t feel guilty asking questions so they can be armed with the information they need to make an informed decision for their family. Communicating the right information as clearly as possible at this moment is in the best interest of the child, because it prepares foster parents for the job they are being asked to take on.

While it never feels good to say “no” to a placement request, it does have to happen sometimes. Most foster parents get into foster parenting for altruistic reasons. We want to help children in care, and it goes against everything within us to have to say “no” to providing a loving home for a child.

Yet it’s important to understand that a “no” is much better than a “yes” that turns into a “no” due to mismatched expectations. There are legitimate reasons a home may not be the best fit for a particular child. The child may have behaviors that subject younger, more vulnerable members of the family to too much risk (I just had to say no to a placement request today for that reason), or the child may simply have behaviors and discipline problems that a foster parent is not experienced enough to handle yet. There’s nothing wrong with that. As foster parents, we have to know our limits.

The real issue is that disrupted placements cause problems for everyone, not the least of which is the child, who now has to be moved to a new home to form new relationships. * Previous attachments become further jeopardized, and the child starts getting calloused to forming and losing relationships. Before long, these children decide that forming new relationships is not worth the effort, because in their minds, they’re just going to be short-term anyway.

The way to avoid these disruptions is to ask a lot of questions at the beginning. As foster parents, we need to be assertive in finding out the information that is important for us to make a decision. Take some time to honestly think about the skills and talents you have (and don’t have), and use that to inform your own judgment about the types of placements you are willing and able to take.

Think about these things ahead of time as much as possible, but you will never be able to anticipate every contingency in advance. You will never have all the facts, nor will the social worker—so the goal is to glean as much information as you can to feel as confident as you can that you are up to the task of caring for this particular child.

For any social workers reading this, this isn’t to say that more information will increase the chances of getting a “no.” For foster parents who ask a lot of questions, it just means the “yes” you eventually receive will be a more confident and informed one. That’s worth a lot.

The fact is, we’re open to learning how to handle new behaviors, but we also want to go into potentially challenging situations with our eyes open so we can best prepare for them. Social workers shouldn’t fear that sharing more information will lead to more foster parents saying “no.” In fact, I think most realize that providing less information increases the chance of getting a soft “yes” that can easily lead to a hard “no” later.

To avoid this, here are some tips for questions to ask when social workers call you for new placements. You will definitely want to create your own list of questions so you can tailor your list to the information that’s important to your family.

  • Why is this child coming into care? If this is a disrupted placement, what were the circumstances of the failed placement?
  • What is this child’s history of abuse or neglect?
  • Does this child have any behaviors that would be important to know about for effective parenting? (For my family, this is one of the most important questions, because it is open-ended.)
  • Are there any behaviors that might affect the safety of other kids in the home?
  • Will I need to get the child to and from school, and if so, which school?
  • Is there a transport service available in case I need help providing transportation?
  • Are there counseling appointments or other appointments I’ll need to take the child to? Are there other members of the team who can be an additional resource for transportation?
  • What are the arrangements for birth parent visits? Where are they located, and are there issues we need to be aware of, for instance regarding birth parent attitudes toward the foster parents?
  • Are there physical health issues I need to be aware of?
  • What is the child’s legal status and permanency plan?

Here are some other tips you might find helpful:

  • Have a plan for how to communicate and get feedback from your spouse before committing to a new placement. In simple situations like short-term respite placements, one of us will sometimes make a decision on the fly, but not for long-term placements.
  • In our family, the person who takes the call will get as much info as possible, take notes, and immediately try to get feedback from the other one as soon as possible. Sometimes this leads to more follow-up questions.
  • It’s OK to tell the social worker you’ll discuss the placement with your spouse and get back to them ASAP.
  • Keep in mind that the social worker is calling a list of foster parents; so the sooner you can return their call, the better. If some time passes before you return the call, the child may already be placed.

In short, take the time you need to gather the information necessary to feel confident in the placement. It always helps to have a willingness to be flexible as you face unforeseen issues that are bound to come up, but the more you can learn about these children at the outset, the better care you can provide for them as foster parents.

Are there times when a disruption is in the best interest of the child? Yes. Absolutely. We don’t always have enough information when kids come into care to make an accurate decision about whether our home will be the best choice for them. But by asking a lot of questions up front, we can make the best informed decision possible, and reduce the need for a placement change.

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