Bethany logo


3 tips for parenting teens from hard places 

The teen you love today was once a child who was hurt. That child is still there inside them, wanting and needing love.

Subaricca Robinson, MS

A teen girl and her dad drink coffee on the front porch

Many people love the idea of caring for young children through adoption or foster care. Kids are silly and fun, and they usually like spending time with you. Teens, though, tend to be more withdrawn, and they don’t always reciprocate love and kindness.

Keep loving them.

Keep telling them you love them.

Keep demonstrating that you love them.

The teen you’re loving today was once a child who was hurt. That child is still there inside them, wanting and needing love.

A common myth about teens is that they’re set in their ways, not open to change. But research shows that a teen’s brain will continue developing into their 20s. That means there’s still time for a foster or adoptive parent to make a difference in a teen’s life, and these three tips can help.

Set clear expectations

Teens want to have fun all the time. They want to be with their friends all the time. They want to disagree with you all the time—about everything. Remember, their brains are still developing. It’s normal teenage logic to want these things without considering that choices have consequences.

No, they can’t hang out with their friends all night.

No, they can’t play video games all day.

But wanting those things with no responsibilities is normal.

Many kids in foster care didn’t have a lot of boundaries in their homes. Parents who aren’t looking out for their kids let them stay up all night, and no wonder the kids don’t want to go to school in the morning. And that’s when teens start getting into trouble. They need parents to provide structure and enforce boundaries that will keep them safe.

One of the foster moms I work with is very good about establishing boundaries and guidelines in her home. But she doesn’t just hand teens a list of rules; she invites them to the table to write the rules together. She posts it on the refrigerator. When the teens stay within the agreed-upon boundaries, they get incentives (added privileges). When they go outside the boundaries, she brings them back to the table, and they talk about what happened.

Get into their world

A teenager’s world feels a lot bigger today than it did when most parents were growing up. Getting into their world isn’t an easy task. Use whatever you can to connect with them.

Music is important to most teens. I typically don’t listen to rap music, but I will if that’s what I need to do to connect with you. If your kids are into sports, get out there with them and have fun. My kids are surprised when I turn on their TV shows or music, but they’ll come and sit with me, and we’ll talk sometimes. Even when they’re argumentative, they’re communicating what they’re thinking and feeling. This is information I wouldn’t otherwise know.

The Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). You don’t have to have experienced exactly what kids have experienced to relate with them.

You were a teenager once—did you ever feel like an outcast or like you didn’t measure up? Kids today experience those feelings times 100 as social media relentlessly calculates their worth with friends, likes, and shares.

Plant a seed

When I train foster families to work with teens, I stress that we have an opportunity to make a difference now. Teens who age out of foster care (about 21,000 across the U.S. each year) have an elevated risk for unemployment, homelessness, substance use, trafficking, and incarceration. Foster and adoptive parents need to know with conviction that they have an opportunity to plant a seed in a teen’s heart. And they need to trust by faith that God will water that seed and let it grow.

Sometimes teens are going through hard things, and you won’t know how to respond. Maybe all you can do is put your arm around them. But even that gift of presence creates an environment where they know they’re not alone. Even if you’re not sure what to say or do, the love in your heart will compel you to find the help they need.

As you talk with teens and listen to what they’re saying, you can often glimpse the young child inside them who has been hurt, rejected, or neglected. Maybe they didn’t get the help or compassion they needed as a younger child. Or maybe a seed was planted long ago and now is your time to water it. In those moments, your presence—your love and your grace—will speak when you don’t have words.

Learn more about adopting through foster care