This content was originally published by Creating a Family, the national infertility education and support nonprofit.
We talk a lot about adopting an older child or teen from foster care, but what is the experience really like? We asked a mom who adopted a 16-year-old from foster care to share her real experience—both the good and the hard.
Five years ago I met the most amazing young woman—14 years after she was born. Courtney* came to me with so many hurts and disappointments. She’d been in more foster placements and schools than her age.
Let that sink in for a moment: at the tender age of 14, she had been in more than 14 foster homes and schools.
She was very angry, defiant, and didn’t trust anyone, especially me. She had learned to only depend on herself. She was scared to open herself up and attach to anyone or anything because she didn’t want to get hurt again.
fostering teens is hard!
I won’t sugar coat our beginnings. I wish I could tell you it was love at first sight, but it definitely was not!
Fostering and parenting Courtney was hard! I’m accustomed to taking in teens, and I expect them to test me. But Courtney took it to a new level. She had mastered how to push people’s buttons.
She ran away more than once, used bad language, stole from stores and us, and was consistently in trouble at school. Her list of “hates” was long:
- her caseworker,
- her bio mom and bio family,
- and especially being in foster care.
Some of her anger towards her bio mom was definitely aimed at me. The one bright spot that she saw was that she only had a few more years until she aged out of foster care.
Discipline was hard. I couldn’t take things away from her, because kids in care are so used to having things taken away from them. Courtney didn’t care if I took something like her phone away. She also didn’t do anything “fun,” so grounding her was useless.
I tried to understand her world. Being a teen is hard, but being a teen in foster care is even harder. My husband and I encouraged Courtney to try to find healthier coping skills and to try to replace her bad behavior with good behavior. We also had to teach her manners and about disagreeing respectfully.
There were times Courtney would encourage my husband and me just to get rid of her because she hated being in our home. I knew, deep down inside, my girl expected us to give up on her. So many other people had. Even if we told her we weren’t going to remove her, those were just words to her. She heard that too many times before. We had to show her through our actions that we weren’t going to give up on her. We had to show her it was okay to trust and talk to us.
I started tucking her in at night. A file only tells you so much. The quiet and the dark and a listening ear began to get through the brick walls my daughter had to protect herself.
For futher reading: Parenting Adopted Teens and Tweens.
As Courtney’s walls were coming down, I started to see the real Courtney. The real Courtney loved Justin Bieber, shopping, animals, and the color blue. And underneath all of her anger, she was really, really afraid.
We began to see change happen slowly. When Courtney did something wrong, she would apologize for it. She stopped stealing and started asking for things. She stopped running away and was doing well in school. Her bad language…well, that’s a work in progress.
Seeing Courtney open up to me was a beautiful thing. I often felt my heart break for her. She, like a lot of kids in foster care, has a very sad, traumatic past. I often cried with her as she was processing and remembering what she’s experienced. I find myself getting very angry at the people who hurt her. I hate that no matter what I do now or did in the early days together, I can never take her pain away. It was hard watching her be in pain. All I could do was hold her and tell her how sorry I was for all that hurt.
From foster child to my daughter
Courtney became my daughter three years ago at the age of sixteen. The thought of being adopted was complicated for her to consider. After so many past hurts and many homes, Courtney believed nobody could possibly want her. She was more comfortable depending only on herself.
The word “forever family” didn’t mean much to her. In her mind, her forever family (bio) gave up on her and didn’t want her. Her forever family also hurt her. So “forever family” isn’t really forever. Courtney kept saying no when her caseworker asked if she wanted to be adopted by us. Her therapist wanted to know why Courtney said no, but Courtney didn’t want to talk about it.
I don’t like forcing kids, especially teens, to get adopted if they don’t want to. Adoption is a big step. I told Courtney even if she chose not to be adopted, we would still be there for her and she could stay with us as long as she wanted. Nothing would change between us.
Eventually, she told us the reason that she didn’t want to be adopted, and she had so many reasons.
- She felt broken and bad. She couldn’t really imagine anyone wanting her. Her plan had always been to just age out of care and to try to go from there. She was afraid.
- She thought she wouldn’t be able to keep in touch in some of her relatives.
- She thought we would give her back after we adopted her because she read online about adoptive families giving their kids back.
- She didn’t feel comfortable calling us “Mom” and “Dad.” It was very triggering for her because “Mom” meant I might hurt her and leave. “Dad” meant my husband might walk out on her.
I reassured her that adoption meant we were legally responsible for her. There was no way we would put her back in foster care if we adopted her. Even though adoption is a loss, and she was gaining a family, she could still be in contact with her biological family. Adoption was a fresh start for her—she could leave the past behind her. But even if she didn’t want to be adopted, she could continue to improve and get a fresh start in life.
Eventually, Courtney grew to love the idea of adoption. She even wanted to change her whole name and started researching what name she would like. Easing from our foster daughter to our daughter was still a huge transition. She still tested us, but she loved that she wasn’t in foster care anymore.
Even though Courtney previously had said she could never call us “Mom” or “Dad,” after a few months, she started calling my husband “Dad.” After a while, she then asked if she could call me “Mommy” because I felt like her mom. I do all the mom things that her own mother never did. I told her whatever she feels comfortable with works for me.
Looking back, I can’t believe how much my daughter has grown in the past five years! It doesn’t even feel like five years have gone passed. It’s an honor to have her in my life and in our family. It’s also an honor to be her mom. I can’t imagine life without her. She’s an awesome big sister to her younger siblings and an awesome little sister to her older siblings. She made me a first-time homeschool and tennis mom. She recently graduated from high school, went to prom, and got her driver’s license.
Today I dropped Courtney off at college. I still can’t process that my daughter is officially a freshman in college! It’s still hard to believe! My heart is sad but in a good way. Letting go was hard for me to do today. I swear I wasn’t really crying! I can’t believe my Courtney is starting a new chapter in her life.
I’m so happy to witness her become a beautiful, talented, smart young lady. She used to be ashamed of her adoption because people would ask questions, but now she embraces it. Adoption is a part of her life story. She wants to help other teens and foster parents in the system. She said kids in care shouldn’t be just another statistic.
Fostering is hard! Adoption is hard! Fostering/adopting teens is particularly hard and requires a different set of skills. It’s definitely not for everyone. But seeing kids like my daughter grow, be happy, and realize that their past shouldn’t define them is all worth it to me. Words can’t describe how proud I am of my daughter! I’m truly blessed!
*We changed the name of the daughter, and mom requested that we not use her name.
Originally published 9/18/2019 by Dawn Davenport on Creating a Family.