There are an estimated 400,000 kids in the 50 foster care systems across the U.S.

That may seem like a huge pile of kids, but it's still fewer than the number of people who caught the midnight showing of the final Harry Potter movie.


As a foster parent in training, who's taking the required 10-week prep course before the licensure process, it's not uncommon for me to be surrounded by people who don't know a single person involved in the foster care system.

Since I started this process, I've had enough of the same conversations that I wanted to put together a guide for the "Well-Meaning, Supportive, and Slightly Alarmed Foster-Adjacent Friends and Family."

Here are the four things you should definitely say to a prospective foster parent. (And four things you really shouldn't. Really. Just... No.)


Photo by Petras Gagilas/Flickr.

1. When I first tell you I'm going to become a foster parent...

What to skip: "Aren't you worried? Those kids can be so tough. Let me tell you a story about a book I read about the foster care system and how I couldn't stop crying about it for days."

Here's the thing: Nobody becomes a foster parent by accident. We apply, take classes, and go through licensure. Every step of the way, we have to confront massive questions about ourselves and our lives ... sometimes in 20-page handwritten applications. Even if we didn't begin with that level of consideration, the system forces us to take that time to think about our choices.

What to say: "I'd love to know more about what led you to become a foster parent."

This shows respect for all the work and thought I've put into this. If you listen to my story and then have follow-up questions? Great. But chances are, I'm going to answer a lot of your questions before you ask them. Like, yes, I do plan to invest in some indestructible furniture.

Photo by Flazingo Photos/Flickr.

2. If you're thinking about the challenges of being a foster parent...

What to skip: "I could never do what you're doing. It'd be too hard for me."

This is like responding to someone's "I'm pregnant!" announcement with, "Oh, but I've heard labor is SO PAINFUL."

Honestly? We've all chosen to do painful things in life. So, maybe you haven't chosen to be a foster parent. But you've probably risked vulnerability for love. You've moved away from friends and family. You've played a sport you loved even though you now have a knee surgeon on speed dial. Humans do painful things all the time. Think of how you got through the last painful experience you had. Think of what your loved one said while they held your hand and fixed you sangria on top of a pile of ice cream.

And if you can't stomach my rants about "The System," or learning a new name every so often, or watching me go through the heartbreak of transition, I get it. It can be a lot. We can go our separate ways. Right now, I need friends who are ready to offer support and camaraderie.

What to say: "It sounds like there are going to be some rough times, but you can count on me. I might not know what to say, but I'm here for you. Do you think you'll want sangria or ice cream when your heart is broken?"

Both, please. I want both.

Photo by Divya Thakur/Flickr.

Photo by James/Flickr.

3. When you're thinking about how foster parenting might be different from other types of parenting...

What to skip: "I just think you're missing out on the true experiences of parenthood, like pregnancy and labor and getting to name your child…"

If you stop to think about it, what you're essentially saying is, "You will never be a real parent. Not fully." And that's a rejection of everything I'm working toward.

I get it. The rhyme never said, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a lifelong entanglement with the child welfare system and a series of placements that will set your heart on a path of growing and breaking forever."

Unless we grew up in the foster care system, none of us was taught how to do this. But I'm taking a deep breath and going for it. Sure, there will be things I don't experience. Heck, my grandfather still thinks I'm leading an unfulfilled life because I refused to take any engineering classes in college. But I'm still breathing, and he and I have a rich and loving relationship despite our radically different careers. You and I can, too.

What to say: "What parts of parenthood are you looking forward to?"

There are lots of experiences I'm going to get to have as a parent — and I'm excited! Ask me about them.


Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection/Flickr.

4. If you think I'm doing the world a favor...

What to skip: "You're doing such a great thing, saving those poor kids."

There is nothing that gets under my skin like fire ants faster than the savior narrative of foster care. There are no heroes, and there are no villains — only the incredibly snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful families and people that make up this system. And I include myself in that system, by the way. I am snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful.

I am not saving anybody. I'm providing a safe and loving home for a child for as long as that child is with me. I'm going to school meetings and soccer practice and kissing bruised knees and checking for monsters under the bed. None of this is heroic — unless it is heroic when you do it too.

Sure, kids who've been through significant trauma have a lot of healing to do. But giving them a safe place to do the work is not an act of heroism. It's an act of humanity. If I get a medal for it, than so should you. And also your kid's teacher. Possibly their doctor too. And that really great babysitter.

Kids come into my house whole, not broken. They come with trauma and baggage and very few belongings. But they also come with wholly formed personalities, senses of humor, survival skills, smarts, and playfulness. There is nothing to fix, only to heal and continue to grow and thrive.

Photo by John Perivolaris/Flickr.

What to say: "Tell me about the kids you've cared for."

When you say this, I see that you recognize my kids as individuals, as whole, sparkly, fabulous people.

And if you're an experienced parent, I may need your advice, especially if I'm dealing with a situation I've never encountered before, like advocating for my kids in school or choosing a piano teacher. Ask about how they make me laugh, how they push my buttons — and I'll ask you right back.

Because we're there with other parents. Our kids may change, and we may have a lot more paperwork to fill out, but we are just as up to our elbows in mud, poop, grinning, anticipation, heartbreak, and exhaustion. And like other parents, we wouldn't trade it for anything.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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