by Kayla VanDyke, NACAC youth engagement coordinator
Kayla was in foster care and uses her experience in a number of capacities to make a difference in the lives of other youth. After graduating from Hamline University, Kayla lead the national It’s Complicated project, which sought to bring comprehensive sexuality and relationship training to youth in foster care. Kayla has served as NACAC’s youth engagement coordinator since April 2015 and, in this position, works to elevate and create opportunities for young people across North America as part of NACAC’s Community Champions Network.
When we imagine success for youth who are or have been in foster care, we often think about employment and educational achievement. As a parent or professional, we acknowledge that the systems put in place for these young people often don’t prepare them with the skills and environment necessary to achieve at the same level as their peers. In instances of education, it’s easy to identify where youth might need added supports and over the years many laws have been adopted to help address these needs. One area that has been consistently ignored or simply mishandled at great cost, however, is sexuality and relationships.
Key Relationship and Sexuality Issues
Negative outcomes related to sexuality and relationships manifest at disproportionate rates for youth who have been in foster care (Taussig, 2002). In one longitudinal study conducted by the University of Chicago, females ages 17 and 18 in foster care had a pregnancy rate of 33 percent, nearly double that of the general population. These young people were also more likely than their peers to experience a repeat pregnancy by the age of 19 (Boonstra, 2011). Previous data from the National Survey on Child and Adolescent Wellbeing concluded that 20 percent of child welfare-involved youth (compared to 8 percent of the general population) had reported having their first consensual sexual experience before the age of 13 (James, 2009).
What research shows is that despite having similar access to reproductive health education, young people involved in child welfare are more likely than their peers to engage in sexual activity early and to experience negative sexual health outcomes. One thing that differentiates outcomes for foster youth is that they are more likely to be faced with unmet relationship needs from their primary caregivers. For many youth it’s the unconscious desire to satiate those unmet familial connections that later motivates their choices around love and dating as adolescents and adults. Unlike most effects of trauma, which can manifest (and thus be addressed) early in a young person’s life, issues around relationships often aren’t expressed and dealt with until much later, when problems have already occurred.
Lacking the personal understanding to assert and maintain proper relationship boundaries with romantic partners can have long-lasting negative consequences for young people, with the most publicized being an increased vulnerability to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation (Kitrla, 2011). Although these outcomes receive the most attention, they are by no means the only potential pitfalls experienced by youth involved in the child welfare system related to their sexual and emotional health. Other problems can include difficulty with trust, willingness to trust or attach too quickly, or changing oneself to please a partner.
At the core of these young people’s vulnerability is the feeling of having been abandoned or the perceived absence of love and value from their biological family. Young people with this trauma typically manifest these insecurities in a fervent drive to be affirmed and find stability through romantic partnerships. Because young people who have been in foster care are more likely than their peers to have a mental health diagnosis, they’re also coming to terms and coping with relationship issues with an added layer of challenges (Taussig, 2002).
In my work as the coordinator for FosterClub’s It’s Complicated Project, I would sometimes get questions from frustrated parents who were at a loss for why their young person’s romantic partner is worrisomely over-prioritized above all other areas of the youth’s life and relationships. Unlike the support and love endowed to youth from adoptive, foster, and institutional placements, romantic relationships can often appear at first as being unmotivated by necessity and thus more sincere. This sometimes inherent trust allotted to potential partners can be incredibly risky for young people if they lack the self assurance and positive relationship role modeling needed to identify manipulation and other dangers.
What Parents and Professionals Can Do to Help
Dating and forming romantic attachments is a normal part of the teenage experience for most youth. That said, there are a lot of very natural concerns you may have about allowing your teen to date. Are they going to engage in risky behavior? Will it distract them from school and other activities? Allowing a young person to date does not mean that you are permissive of these behaviors, only that you are willing to let them have the space necessary to engage with their peers in an age-appropriate way. The following are a few pieces of practical advice for parents and caregivers hoping to facilitate the development of healthy relationship skills in the young people they care about.
1: Give them a safe and structured platform for practice
To some extent, dating is a skill that’s learned over time. It requires us to have a well-rounded understanding of who we are and what we’re looking for in another person. Just as your first relationship was likely not your last, it’s important for young people to be able to practice the skills they’ll need to create and know the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. This is something that can be preliminarily learned through observation but must ultimately be practiced through experience.
The key to creating an environment in which your young person can safely learn these interpersonal skills is to establish expectations and a strong sense of trust around communication. Be clear and realistic about the rules you have for dating and allow opportunities for your young person to socialize. This might mean that you only allow dates to happen when there is an adult present or on certain nights that don’t conflict with family time.
Challenge yourself to be conscious of how you talk about difficult issues and make sure your young person feels safe enough to come to you with problems they’re having. The fear of consequences and judgment can be alienating to youth and close them off from being open with you when problems do occur. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and that ultimately what’s most important is that they learn from them.
2: Be knowledgeable and empathetic to some of the ways youth express their trauma
Understanding how and when trauma is manifesting itself in the actions of your youth can be incredibly challenging. In times of intense stress or emotional compromise, young people who’ve experienced trauma are often left with a set of tools geared toward mitigating their personal suffering in the short term. Unlike typical youth behavioral problems (which virtually all parents deal with), actions and perceptions rooted in trauma can be maladaptive in ways that can lead to long-lasting negative behaviors.
As an adult supporter, you don’t need to be a therapist to help youth heal and coach them away from negative behaviors. Listed below are a few commonly expressed sexuality and relationship behaviors associated with trauma. Identifying and being empathetic to the potential source of these behaviors is an important step in being able to help your young person cope more constructively.
Skin hunger and hypersexuality — the intense desire to relate and connect to people through physical and or sexual contact. Physical contact produces the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for our feelings of love and connection. It’s thought that normal oxytocin regulation is partially formed by our developmental experiences as a child. If a young person was adopted from an environment in which they were not touched or comforted regularly during their development, then it’s possible for their oxytocin response to be abnormally expressed, which can cause some children and youth to have a stronger response to touch (Uvnäs-Moberg, 2015). Physical contact can also act as a way for youth to soothe themselves against the effects of trauma and feel affirmed in relationships they may otherwise fear are as fragile as their past placements. Young people that express skin hunger or hypersexuality may lack appropriate physical boundaries and seek to become sexually active earlier as a complete or partial supplement to feeling secure in a relationship.
How to respond: Instead of isolating these youth from relationships entirely, focus on dating environments that are supervised and keep youth physically engaged in a shared activity. Consider involving your child’s partner in a family game night or alternatively limit their dates to times when you will be home.
If you suspect your young person might become sexually active or already is, it’s important to engage them in an open conversation about sexual health, reproduction, and consent. Young people are easily alienated by these conversations and likely won’t respond positively if your talk is consequence based. Assure your young person that you care about them and acknowledge their own role in keeping themselves safe.
Life boating — a term that refers to the survivalist behavior of entering into relationships for support and resources. An example of life boating might include a youth who begins a relationship for the sake of having a place to stay or a family to visit over the holidays. Life boating can also take the form of serial dating and prevent the young person from developing emotional independence. This type of behavior is usually motivated by need and can deliver young people into hazardous dependencies with potential partners.
How to respond: This coping mechanism is common for older youth who lack—or perceive themselves as lacking—permanent family connections. To help young people begin processing the nature of their relationships, engage them in a conversation around what they objectively enjoy about this other person and how they are treated in the relationship. You might consider starting the conversation off indirectly by asking them what they think makes a good relationship in general. Create a dialogue by giving your own examples and tie the conversation back into what they perceive to be the positives and negatives of their own relationship.
Relationship testing — the often unconscious process of damaging or terminating relationships as a way to evaluate the strength or sincerity of a bond. Many youth who have been in foster care have significant issues of trust and identity and may feel insecure about how others feel about them. Creating turbulence in the relationship can give the young person a semblance of power over what they might anticipate is an inevitable rejection.
How to respond: If you notice your young person abruptly ending or creating drama in relationships that you otherwise perceived as stable, ask them about the specifics of their decision. Choices made through quick emotional outbursts are often unprocessed and based in pain aversion, so talking about it rationally can often illuminate for youth a motivation they didn’t know they had. Be careful when discussing a young person’s choice of romantic partner, though. You don’t want to encourage someone to stay in a relationship that doesn’t feel right.
The chameleon effect — changing to fit the desires and personality of a romantic partner. Entering into a new family in foster care or adoption means learning to fit in and adapt to an entirely new home culture. The micronuances—unconscious and recognized—of your last home might not be applicable to your new family, and the burden of fitting in often falls on the young person to figure out. In its more benign form, this might mean a young person participates in an interest common to the family just so they can feel connected.
Sometimes, though, this skill can become so practiced that it actually causes a youth to change his identity to mirror those around them. As a result, young people may never get the opportunity to learn and develop an independent and consistent sense of self. This lack of a stable identity can cause them trouble in nearly every facet of their life and prevent them from being able to identify negative people and behaviors.
How to respond: Help your young person develop stability in their identity by being actively interested and supportive of their interests and expression. Give the youth as many opportunities to explore and express their individuality in a reaffirming environment as possible, even if their choices are unfamiliar to you. If you see significant changes in the youth, ask questions about their motivation.
3: Become an example of what it means to be in a healthy relationship with others
A child’s first example of what it means to be in a relationship comes from the adult interactions they observe. In particular, the relationships demonstrated to them by their parents create a foundation of standards and social norms that are likely to carry into their interpersonal relationships.
Yours is likely not the first relationship that this young person has seen. When trying to understand the motivations of your young person, consider the potential for their past experiences to shape their actions with others. For a young person who has come to associate abuse and neglect with romantic partnerships, it may be incredibly difficult to identify when they are becoming the perpetrators or victims of mistreatment.
Something you may want to consider is how you can make disagreements between you and your spouse or partner an opportunity for the young people in your home to see what healthy conflict resolution looks like. Wait for a potential conflict to arise or plan one with your partner to showcase the importance of communication and the standard of non-violence in a disagreement. Talk with your teen about how you resolve conflict and what works best for you.
Support Makes a Difference
I began to date at 16, shortly after my sister aged out of our foster placement. I wasn’t allowed to see her and had no other healthy family connections. Retreating into relationships became a way for me to feel loved and supported in the absence of a strong and stable support network. Although I had issues with serial dating and an unwillingness to be alone, in general my experiences helped me gain a better understanding of myself and what I would and should expect in a romantic partner.
Unlike many others, I had the support of an advocacy intervention service to help me process my trauma and learn healthy coping mechanisms that applied to my future relationships. Without the guidance of my mentors and training, however, I too could have fallen into one of the more potentially troubling outcomes too common in the foster care and adoption community such as teen pregnancy and relationship abuse (Courtney, 2001). Regrettably, the type of support I received is not part of the typical menu of resources offered to youth in care as they begin to realize their independence. We owe it to young people to offer them these supports to help ensure that they have the best chance of succeeding in romantic relationships, just as we seek to secure their success in education and employment.
Boonstra, Heather. “Teen Pregnancy among Young Woman in Foster Care: A Primer.” Guttmacher Policy Review 14.2 (2011).
Courtney, Mark E., Irving Piliavan, and Ande Nesmith. “Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood: A Longitudinal View of Youth Leaving Care.” Child Welfare LXXX.6 (2001): 685-718.
CAS Research and Education. “Foster Care & Human Trafficking.” 2013.
James, Sigrid, Susanne B. Montgomery, Laurel K. Leslie, and Jinjin Zhang. “Sexual Risk Behaviors among Youth in the Child Welfare System.” Children and Youth Services Review 31.9 (2009): 990-1000.
Kitrla, Kimberly. “Sex Trafficking within the United States.” SpringerReference 55.2 (2011): 287-94.
Maholchic, Lisa, and Wendy Wheeler. “Providing Relationship Education for Foster Youth.” Healthy Marriage Resource Center
Taussig, Heather N. “Risk Behaviors in Maltreated Youth Placed in Foster Care: A Longitudinal Study of Protective and Vulnerability Factors.” Child Abuse & Neglect 26.11 (2002): 1179-199.
Uvnäs-Moberg, Kerstin, Linda Handlin, and Maria Petersson. “Self-soothing Behaviors with Particular Reference to Oxytocin Release Induced by Non-noxious Sensory Stimulation.” Frontiers in Psychology. Frontiers Media S.A., 12 Jan. 2015.
Originally published in NACAC’s Adoptalk 2016