Meeting Foster Youth Where They Are At | Foster with the Y

Last updated: April 29, 2024, at 12:58 p.m. PT

Originally published: April 29, 2024, at 12:58 p.m. PT

group of teens smiling for a photo

“Meeting someone where they are at” might seem like just a new buzz phrase in social services but there is a lot of meaning and thoughtful research behind it. Meeting someone where they are at means honoring and respecting where they’re currently at in their life journey, not where you want them to be. The approach behind it is to observe and learn from the person what their strengths are, their goals, how they want to receive help, and potential barriers. It is understanding where the person is emotionally, mentally, and physically. This approach is used frequently in the mental health field and intertwined with the principles of harm reduction, which primarily focuses on reducing risky and unsafe behaviors in people suffering from substance abuse issues. Today the approach is being applied across social services by shifting the focus from the professionals’ expectations and goals to meeting recipients’ needs with a holistic and individualized approach. 

How does this phrase “meeting someone where they are at” apply to working with foster youth? The Y’s Foster Care Program has provided therapeutic foster care services for over 30 years and our case managers have years of experience navigating a youth’s behavioral and mental health needs. Along the way they have learned the importance of tailoring rules and expectations in the home to meet the youth where they are at. To do this, it is important for foster parents to take time to get to know the youth and build rapport with them.  

From a case managers’ experience, it takes at least a month or more to observe the youth and to learn about their developmental needs, history of trauma, culture, and barriers. Additionally, having a good foundation of trust and safety will allow a foster parent to get the youth’s participation and buy-in when addressing challenges. During this time of relationship-building, it is often stressed to foster parents to “pick their battles” and be flexible. Safety should always be a top concern and there should be structure and healthy boundaries set in place from the beginning of a placement.  

Some areas where foster parents should allow more flexibility are around food (potentially eating or keeping food in their bedroom), bedtime and hygiene routines, screen-time, completing house chores, spending time with the family, and homework. These areas tend to vary widely from home to home. The ways in which a foster parent and/or their children were raised may be very different than the foster youth. There may be differences due to culture, socio-economic status, race, and ultimately how they were parented in their home or homes before moving into yours.  

As a foster parent, be self-reflective on the norms in your home and the expectations you have for children. Allow for flexibility and be open to changing and adjusting your expectations. It may mean taking things slower and breaking things down into smaller pieces. For example, when a foster youth has not been attending school, is it reasonable to expect a newly placed youth to attend school, do their homework every day, and get good grades? Yes, it is reasonable and great expectations for youth, but it is not meeting the foster youth where they are at. In this moment, foster parents and the youth’s support team need to collaborate to find ways to engage the youth around attending school either in person or online. Every step towards regular attendance should be celebrated and then in the future focus on good study habits and improving grades. Set the bar at achievable goals that consider the youth’s strengths and barriers to success. 

Meeting someone where they are at can be a challenge and can sometimes feel counter-intuitive to typical parenting advice. Many foster parents have found success in regularly talking with the foster youth’s Y case manager, social worker, school staff, or therapist. Each team member may hold a critical piece of the puzzle from their own observations and expertise. This helps foster parents alleviate the pressure of having to solve issues all on their own. Here at the Y, we believe that collaboration and individualized support are key to successful foster care placements. Our placement coordinators strive to make thoughtful informed placement decisions based on our foster parents’ parenting experience, strengths, and lifestyle. We believe in setting up our foster parents for success by identifying areas of growth and building their experience over time. We will meet you where you are at and make sure you have the support you need to be successful on your new journey.

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