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The good news for parents and other caring adults, including foster parents, is that there is much they can do to help influence their children’s decisions about sex. Foster youth say they want to discuss sex, love, and relationships with their foster parents, but some are embarrassed or feel uncomfortable starting the conversation. The same holds true for foster parents. They often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to start. This guide offers some ideas to help foster parents strengthen their relationships with foster youth. It also offers some ideas on how best to communicate about sex, love, and relationships.
Many foster youth have been moved from home to home; some have had poor relationships with adults, including abuse and neglect. Because of such experience, it is critical that you let them know early and often that they are welcome in your home, it is safe, and you care about them. Show them they are important and valued. In other words, do all you can to build a warm, trusting relationship right from the start. Your foster child will feel more comfortable talking to you about a personal topic such as sex, if you are seen as trustworthy. Understand, too, that a close relationship between caring adults and teens helps young people avoid many risky behaviors, including early sex and unprotected sex leading to pregnancy and parenthood.
Of special concern: Building strong relationships and talking about sex can be more complex if your foster youth has been sexually abused. They may blame themselves for the abuse and have confused feelings about the meaning and purpose of sex. Foster parents, along with a team of case workers and mental health professionals, must work together with the young person to manage anger, teach what is appropriate sexual behavior, and rebuild self esteem and trusting relationships with adults.
Ideally, age-appropriate conversations about relationships and intimacy should begin early in a child’s life and continue through adolescence. But if your foster child enters your house as an older teen, it’s never too late to talk about sex. All kids need a lot of communication, guidance, and information about these issues, even if they sometimes don’t appear to be interested in what you have to say. Resist “the talk” — instead, have an ongoing conversation. Remember to talk to both your foster daughters and foster sons. Remember, too, that both foster mothers and foster fathers should be involved in these conversations.
When you start the conversation, make sure that it is honest, open, and respectful.
Be sure to have a two-way conversation, not a one-way lecture. Ask your teens what they think and what they know in order to learn their views so that you can correct misunderstandings or myths. Ask what worries them. Be a good listener and let your teens talk. Tell them truthfully and confidently what you think and why you think this way—that is, have a point of view about what’s safe and what’s right. If you’re not sure about some issues, tell them that, too.
By the way, research clearly shows that talking with teens about sex does not encourage them to become sexually active. Also keep in mind that your own behavior should match your words. Teens are careful watchers of adults and are very sensitive to hypocrisy.
Don’t feel as though you have to know it all. Teens need help in understanding the meaning of intimacy, not just how all the body parts work. Tell them about love and sex, and what the difference is. Talk to them about the future and commitment. And remember to talk about the reasons that kids find sex interesting and enticing; discussing only the “downside” of unplanned pregnancy and disease misses many of the issues on teenagers’ minds. You will be a better communicator if you are sensitive to your foster youth’s culture and religion, as well as his or her sexual orientation.
Some foster youth have a strong desire to have a child right away. Not surprisingly, they may seek to create their own family as a source of stable relationships and unconditional love. Given such longing, it is important for you to have frank and detailed discussions with your foster teens about the real challenges of being a parent, especially a teen parent who is often single. Talk to them a lot about how they plan to support a baby through 18 years of life and provide the emotional and financial opportunities they want for their children. Talk to them, too, about waiting to have children until they finish school, have a job, and a committed partner. Oftentimes, youth do not fully understand the true costs and burdens of raising a child. You can help give them a reality check.
Keep your case worker in the loop about your discussions with your foster youth. He or she can reinforce your messages and support you with any concerns you may have.
Be an askable foster parent. Here are some of the kinds of questions that your foster children may want to discuss:
- How do I know if I’m in love? Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?
- How will I know when I’m ready to have sex?
- Will having sex make me popular? How will sex affect my relationships now and in the future?
- How do I tell my boyfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him or hurting his feelings?
- How do I manage pressure from my girlfriend to have sex?
- How do I deal with pressure from my friends to have sex?
- How does contraception work? Are some methods better than others? Are they safe?
- Can you get pregnant the first time?
- Should I wait to have a baby? Why?
Be a parent with a point of view. Don’t be shy about saying:
- I think sex should be associated with commitment and teens simply aren’t ready to commit.
- When you eventually do have sex, always use protection until you are ready to have a child.
- Have a plan. Think in advance about how you’ll handle the heat of the moment. Will you say “no”? Will you use contraception? What if your partner wants to have sex but doesn’t want to use contraception?
- It’s okay to think about sex and feel sexual desire; everybody does. But it doesn’t mean you have to act on these feelings now.
- One of the many reasons I’m concerned about drinking and drug use is that they are often linked to bad decisions about sex.
- Having a baby doesn’t make you a man. Being strong enough to wait and act responsibly does.
- Having a baby doesn’t make you a woman. Waiting until the time is right for you and your family does.
- You don’t have to have sex to keep a boyfriend/girlfriend. If sex is the price of a close relationship, then think again about the relationship.
Teens who are close to their parents/foster parents and feel supported by them are more likely to wait until they are older to begin having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and use contraception more consistently. Having a caring parent around can make a real difference, especially when that parent is really engaged in the young person’s life.
Family activities such as going out to the movies or outdoor activities can be quite important in a foster child’s life. Try to eat and/or cook dinner together as often as possible and use the time for conversation, not confrontation. Something as simple as a car ride can be a perfect time to have meaningful conversations and learn about each other. Be supportive and be interested in what interests them. Attend their sports events; learn about their hobbies; be enthusiastic about their achievements, even the little ones; ask them questions that show you care and want to know what is going on in their lives.
Do your best to establish rules, curfews, and standards of expected behavior, preferably through open family discussions. This may be difficult since some foster children may try to test your parental limits. In addition, foster youth may contact their birth parents in hopes they will disagree with your rules. However, most foster teens respect guidelines and structure—it shows that you care about them.
If your foster child gets out of school at 3 pm and you don’t get home from work until 6 pm, who is responsible for making certain that your foster child is not only safe during those hours, but also involved in positive activities? Where are they when they go out with friends? Are there adults around who are in charge? Supervising and monitoring your foster child’s whereabouts doesn’t make you a nag; it makes you a caring foster parent.
Clearly, friends have a strong influence on each other, both positive and negative. Foster parents should know that there is much they can do to help build on positive peer influence, and help foster teens steer clear of risky friendships. Whenever possible, meet the parents of your foster child’s friends so that you can get to know them and establish common rules and expectations. It is easier to enforce a curfew that all your foster child’s friends share rather than one that makes him or her different. But even if your views don’t match those of other parents, hold fast to your convictions. Welcome your foster child’s friends into your home and talk to them openly.
Keep in mind that if your foster child has moved around often, she/he may have to make a whole new set of friends. Some foster teens do not want anyone to know they are in foster care and may be reluctant for their foster parents to meet their friends. Don’t be discouraged.
Today’s teenagers spend over 40 hours each week consuming media. Television, music, movies, videos, magazines, and the Internet send many messages about sex. Often, in the media, it seems that sex has no meaning or consequences, unplanned pregnancy seldom happens, and few people in the media having sex ever seem to be married or even especially committed to each other. Is this consistent with your expectations and values? If not, it is important to talk with your foster children about what the media portray and what you think about it.
Encourage your kids to think critically: Ask them what they think about the programs or movies they watch and the music they listen to. Watch their favorite shows with them and ask whether what they see on TV relates to anything in their lives or their friend’s lives. While you cannot fully control what your foster children see and hear, you can certainly make your views known and control the media in your own house. For example, you can put the computer and television in an open space, not in a bedroom, so that they are easier to monitor.
Tip #7: Don’t forget the boys – Talk to your foster sons as well as your foster daughters. Avoid the double standard.
The 750,000 teen girls who get pregnant each year don’t do it alone. Boys may feel a lot of pressure to have sex to prove something to their friends or to impress a girl. Talk with boys — not just girls — about responsibility, love, the emotional and health consequences of sex, and values. Boys need to know that teen pregnancy has serious consequences for them, too. Remember the old saying, “a few minutes of pleasure can lead to 18 years of responsibility.” Tell them how becoming a parent carries financial consequences and can interfere with achieving their educational and career goals.
Allowing your foster teens to enter a serious dating relationship much before age 16 can lead to increased risk for getting pregnant. Instead, support group activities. Make your strong feelings about this known early on — that way it won’t appear as though you disapprove of a particular person.
In addition, take a strong stand against your foster daughter dating a boy significantly older than she is. Don’t allow your foster son to develop an intense relationship with a girl much younger than he is.
Try setting a limit of no more than a two- (or at most three-) year age difference. Older guys often seem more mature or even glamorous to a younger girl. For example, they often have more money and perhaps even a car. The power differences between younger girls and older boys, however, can lead girls into risky situations, including unwanted sex and sex with no protection. Young boys with older girls bring similar risks.
Tip #9: Encourage your foster child to become involved in activities such as sports, arts, community-service, faith-based activities, or other after-school programs.
Getting involved in hobbies, sports, or the arts can help foster youth build confidence and self-esteem by mastering skills. Self-esteem is earned, not given. One of the best ways to earn it is by doing something well. Give them something positive to say “yes” to by providing them with alternatives to engaging in risky behavior. Community service, in particular, not only teaches job skills, but can also put teens in touch with other committed and caring adults. Many religious organizations have positive youth activities. Check out the resources for foster youth in your community such as camps, mentoring programs, and college preparation courses.
Tip #10: Help your foster teens to have options for the future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood.
The chances that your foster children will delay sex, pregnancy, and parenthood are significantly increased if they believe they have a successful future ahead of them. This means highlighting their talents, helping them set meaningful goals for the future, talking to them in concrete terms about what it will take to reach their goals, and providing help along the way. Encourage them to take school seriously and graduate from high school. Take them to visit college campuses. Teach them to use free time constructive ways, such as setting aside time to complete homework assignments. Explain how becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy can get in the way of their plans for the future. Let them know that they will be able to provide their children with a better life than they had growing up if they wait until they finish school, have a good job, and are in a stable, caring relationship. Some foster youth may feel it is impossible to achieve all these things. Even so, it is still important to encourage them to have aspirations and help them make those aspirations a reality.
A Final Note
Becoming a foster parent can be one of life’s most rewarding and challenging responsibilities. Helping any young person grow up and avoid such problems as pregnancy, violence, drugs, alcohol, smoking, and school failure can be daunting. Remember that you can make a difference. In particular, a close relationship with your foster children can be the best protection of all. It’s never too early or too late to strengthen a relationship with a teenager or to educate them about sex, love, and relationships.
Need more information?
The National Campaign offers many resources for parents in general on teen pregnancy all of which are low cost and many of which are free to download. For more information, please visit the Parent section of our website. Click here to download a copy of 10 Tips for Foster Parents.
The National Foster Parent Association is a national organization which strives to support foster parents and remains a consistently strong voice on behalf of all children. Their website has links to state foster parent associations. Please visit www.nfpainc.org/.
FosterClub is a national organization with a mission to provide encouragement, motivation, information, education, and benefits for foster youth. Their website features stories from successful former foster youth, contests, and opportunities for youth to send in opinions about their foster care experience, and more. The website also offers resources for foster parents including online trainings. Please visit www.fosterclub.com and www.fyi3.com.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy would like to thank the many foster parents from Chicago, Illinois; Fairfax, VA; and Washington, DC who provided their valuable feedback and input on this publication. Also thank you to our reviewers for their helpful comments.