Over the last several years, I have adopted two teenage boys from the Foster care system. Each had their own unique background and baggage, but there are some common threads. These common threads bring challenges when your hope is that they can encounter Jesus in a way that has a positive effect on their lives.
Lack of trust – These kids have been through tough times. Everyone that was supposed to provide love and guidance failed them. Parents had issues that caused them to lose their kids and then the kids find themselves in the foster care system. The kids did nothing wrong except to be born into families that didn’t know how to parent. Kids will naturally have trust issues if they have been let down time and time again. When a new person comes into their lives, they will have to decide whether or not to let them in.
Lack of social skills – Kids in the foster care system have not had the privilege of growing up with other kids their age or if they did, often it was only with the same sex. They have spent most of their time around adults who are constantly being replaced by other adults who may or may not care about them. They have learned to mimic them picking up bits and pieces here and there, but they have had exposure to healthy relationships. They don’t know how to interact with other kids their age much less members of the opposite sex.
Lack of resources – Kids in the foster care system don’t have the same privileges as other kids. They might be in a situation where they are sharing everything. They also might have a very limited amount of things. They learn to survive with what they have and quickly learn to take care of themselves since no one else will. They enter an adoptive family very self-centered and often unable to empathize with others.
Lack of knowledge – Kids in the foster care system might not know a lot about the world. They might have been shut off from the rest of the world because of their situation. They might be unaware of things that other kids their age know such as operating a smartphone or knowing about school spirit. This might cause social awkwardness because they don’t know how to act with others or they might be teased for not knowing something.
Constant change – As they moved through the system, they often found themselves being shuffled between foster care homes or worse yet, residential treatment centers. They find themselves constantly starting over with school, friends and relationships, expectations, rules, and everything else most folks take for granted.
One of the assumptions here is that as a parent you know Jesus and it is the most important thing in your life. You understand the importance of relationships and can see how all the benefits that you have through Christ could benefit your teen. The other thing that may not be obvious is that we can not force, nor should we, someone to believe the same way we do. Jesus took us from where we were at and took us on a journey. Your adopted teen will have their own journey to take. So how do you provide opportunities for them?
1. Meet them where they are:
If your teen is actively using drugs, alcohol or any other substance, then start there. If they struggle with school, that’s the starting place. Your love for them will be seen in how you care for them and help them overcome these issues. Learn what resources are available to support your teen in overcoming their challenges and ask how you can help. Bottom line is that you don’t have to do it all yourself.
2. Teach by example:
If you have a relationship with Christ, then share that relationship with your teen by living it out in front of them. In doing so, you will model for them what a Christian looks like and how they act and respond to others (both positive and negative). It doesn’t matter if it is a good day or a bad day for you; God’s grace will cover all of it. Your teen will see God at work in your life through their interactions with you whether it be love, forgiveness, or patience (or all of the above). What better way to teach someone about Jesus than by showing him working through us?
3. Give them opportunities to serve others:
Giving a teen the opportunity to serve others is one of the best gifts you can give them. It shows them that their life matters and is not just about getting even, being right, or taking care of themselves. It also teaches them that they were created to be selfless and to love others without the expectation of receiving anything in return. Service leads to a greater appreciation for life’s blessings, not only for the person you are serving but for yourself as well.
4. Be honest with them:
Don’t lie to your teen about their situation; don’t lie about what happened or who did what to whom, and don’t tell them what you think they want to hear instead of the truth. If you do, then they will never know whether or not they can trust you with information and will begin keeping secrets from you as well. By lying, you are telling your teen that it is okay for them to lie too! They need someone in their lives whom they can trust with everything and anything because no matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes and by holding back things from someone else, it only gives us an excuse to hold back on things from God as well!
5. Don’t avoid talking about difficult subjects:
If there are topics that are difficult for your teen (such as sex, drugs, or alcohol) then don’t avoid talking about these subjects. These are the things that your teen needs to know about and you need to be honest with them about these things. If you don’t talk about them, then they will probably find someone else who will tell them what is going on in the world, but not always in the best way.
6. Be involved:
Make time to bond with your teen and get to know them; ask questions, listen to their answers and share information on your end as well. Make sure that they know that you are interested in what they have to say and want to help if they need it. When kids feel important, they often act according to how they feel instead of what we want or expect from them!
7. Be consistent:
Kids want rules and boundaries, but we all know teens do not always follow those rules! So if you make a rule or a boundary, then stick with it! Don’t let one time slide because one day soon your teen will realize that there really aren’t any rules and boundaries at all! And then all bets are off as far as their behavior goes – especially when it comes to drugs or alcohol! They need consistency; whether it is grounding for a month for breaking curfew or not being allowed to see friends for a month for doing drugs (or alcohol). Whatever the rule is, stick with it so that your teen knows exactly what the consequences are if they break the rules
In conclusion, it is important to know that the teen years are not easy for anyone. Teens want to be independent, but at the same time, they want to fit in with their friends. So it’s important for parents to try and keep a close eye on their teens and make sure that they know that you care about them and want them to be safe! Adoptive teens face additional challenges that have to be overcome just to trust you. However, given time, they will see that you love them and can be trusted. It may take months or even years, but once that happens, then they will be open to hearing the gospel in a way that can take root. Of course, God may intervene in a moment and change can come quickly, but at least in the meantime, you at least have a guide.
Jay Fernandez is a former missionary, lay pastor, and parent of two adopted kids plus four biological ones too. He operates a number of websites including New DNA Family for folks who found out their family was different than what they thought they knew before taking a DNA test. Jay found out he was in fact adopted at age 58.