How you can make a difference by fostering teenagers

Wednesday 13 January 2021
Young teeange girl and older lady sat having a conversation

Many people want to foster younger children, thinking this is where they can have the most impact. This isn’t always true

In this blog, we look at brain changes during adolescence – and the difference you can make by fostering teens.

Adolescence and its changes can be confusing for children and young people. As a foster carer you may see new, sometimes challenging, behaviours emerge.

Teenagers who faced abuse and neglect as children can have learning, physical or mental health delays. They often struggle to manage their emotions and find it hard to form relationships with adults and peers.

What is happening in a teenager's brain?

According to Daniel Siegel, a therapist specialising in trauma and adolescent development, children’s brains are built to learn and soak up knowledge. But during adolescence, the brain begins re-modelling. It “prunes” out connections that aren’t important or used enough from their childhood.

An adolescent is going to begin to find their passion. Pruning is actually a 'use it or lose it' principle (...) It specialises the brain, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Daniel Siegel

At the same time, connections in the brain speed up. This allows your teen to connect things at a faster rate. These changes affect the pre-cortex, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and self-regulation.

How does it affect their behaviour?

Changes for some teenagers may happen earlier than for others. We all develop at different rates. Your teenager may find it easier to:

  • Understand longer term consequences
  • Consider other people’s perspectives
  • Focus on a problem for longer
  • Think about more complex thought processes
  • Read emotions and social situations better

Adolescence is also time when children start to crave more independence. Push boundaries, take risks and become more influenced by friends.

While this shift can feel difficult, it’s a normal one. Your teen is getting ready to leave the nest and think more for themselves.

Research also suggests that more dopamine may be released during adolescence. This makes teens take more risks and be more motivated by rewards.

How can foster carers support a teenager?

Experiences and activities

Because the brain needs to know what connections to keep, positive experiences are more like to become hard-wired in their brain. The more opportunities you can give your teen to support their interests, the more skills they will develop and retain.

Keep that connection

It’s an important time to build or maintain the relationship with your teen. Doing fun things together will help them feel connected to you. Try to get into their world. Long walks and Scrabble may be your idea of a good time, but not theirs!

Mother and teenage daughter sitting on sofa and drinking tea together

Create a safe space

Children need a safe space to learn and develop. A calm environment with consistent boundaries can support this. They also need space to grow independently and learn how to do things for themselves.

Talk to your teen and include them in decisions where possible. It can help with cooperation and making them feel more in control.

Help them manage their emotions

Helping your teen to manage their emotions is key for their development. But as a foster carer, it can be hard to validate feelings and stay calm. Especially if your teen is struggling to manage their emotions. In his book “Brainstorm’”, Daniel Siegel says that an emotion usually lasts 90 seconds. If you can stay calm in this time, you’re more likely to respond to your child in a positive way.

Fostering teenagers

Most children in foster care are in their teens. Adolescence is an important time for them. They need more help to build positive connections in their brain – and retain them.

As a foster carer, you can make a big difference and shape their future for the better.