Teaching Healthy Dating

healthy datingBeing a teen in foster care is tough for a truckload of reasons. For starters, you’re living in a place away from your family, who you may weirdly want to go back to, even though they may have hurt you. You’re also in that transition period from child to adult, trying to figure out yourself and life. As a teen in foster care, when I looked ahead I was scared. All I really wanted was someone to just care for me. Fortunately, in my case, there were a few adults around that did, but at the time I didn’t trust pretty much anyone. It was hard for me to trust or to understand why someone, especially someone who wasn’t my family, would even have a reason to think twice about me. One thing I did understand (at least I thought so at the time) was relationships and dating. However, what I didn’t comprehend was what “healthy dating” really meant.

Now, we all know that dating is normal whether you’re in foster care or not, but as teenagers grow, the more interested they become in the dating scene. I think it’s also safe to say, that what we were taught as children affects how we treat the other person we are in a relationship with and how we will interact being in that relationship. I know that foster kids aren’t the only ones that have gone through or seen negative things, because well…life. You get the picture. However, I guarantee 100% of foster kids have either been taken from relationships they thought were good, have seen unhealthy relationships, or they have been hurt by someone who they love-who is also supposed to love them back without conditions. If abuse, yelling, fighting, and arguing is all you have lived in your life, or the example has been the toxic relationship of your parents, then more than likely it will be your first instinct to have some of those exact same behaviors.

Let’s talk about this pendulum swinging another way. As you know, you are not another person, not your mother nor your father, you are just you. In some instances, foster kids have lost parents and set out to seek that love and comfort. Some foster kids have been put on the back burner by their parents for other relationships, or they may have been abused in several different ways. Most of the time, this abuse comes from the ones that were supposed to teach these children how to have those healthy relationships. A foster child’s way of coping may be trying to seek that individual love they never had. Which means they can be used by people who they think love them, but end up going from relationship to relationship to try to fill this void.

Bad relationship skills don’t just happen, they are a learned trait. These traits are embedded into us and in most cases, this is who we will end up becoming. Foster children just don’t grow up and one day think it’s “okay” to hit their significant other. Foster children just don’t grow up to be controlling, abusive or mean; they were taught to be this way. Often, these children tend to lose too much of themselves to their past woes. For foster children, the risk of staying in a relationship with a person that is inflicting the abuse, or becoming the abuser themselves, is much higher. This means the stakes skyrocket even more for a foster child to eventually become a victim or a perpetrator into their adulthood. Too many people in abusive relationships think that what’s going on is justifiable or believe they actually deserve the destructiveness. I mean, it is what has happened to them for their entire life, right? So, what does the definition of “healthy” even mean to them? You could take these same group of people and ask ANYONE of them whether they are the abuser or victim, “Is abuse wrong?”, and every one of them would say “Yes.”. However, the cycle of abuse still occurs in many dating relationships.

Foster kids need to be shown that what they’ve seen many times over in relationships, is not the way things actually go. Often it means being re-taught how to treat people and how to respect yourself. In the foster care group home that I lived in, there were many rules in place to help with healthy dating for teenagers. At the time, I thought they were annoying and just down right embarrassing. Looking back, especially now that I’m sitting in the parent’s seat, they were quite acceptable and in fact necessary. Some of the rules I can remember are that you must be a certain age to date, you must live at the home for a certain length of time before dating, the house parents must meet the person you’re dating before you were able to go anywhere with them, and you must be supervised or in a group setting at all times. I always had to let them know what I was doing and where I was going, without exception.

Even when I had a girl come over, there were rules set in place for that as well. We weren’t allowed to touch, no P.D.A., or sitting on laps or being under the blankets together. What was most embarrassing about this is at times something innocent may have happened, but it was always gently corrected. Most teens aren’t used to rules that are so strict or so strictly enforced. Innocently enough, someone can sit on your lap or share a blanket with you. The truth is though this needed to happen. There needed to be safe boundaries, not only because I was a foster kid, but because I was a teenage kid as well. These are the times that you instill the values the children need to have successful relationships. Be open and honest about the effects of life while dating, but try not to have these conversations while the person the child is dating is in the room. These pivotal points are learning moments and must be handled with care.

Too many teenagers, foster kids or not, make life changing mistakes when it comes to dating. They think about their past and their now, more than their future. However, the emotional damage that may occur from these choices can be prevented for the teens that are not yet ready for the consequences of their actions, if handled well. It’s important for foster kids to see and often be re-taught how to have healthy dating relationships. There are also too many foster kids that grow up and continue the cycle of what they’ve experienced in their own dating, marriages and relationships. Which then continues another cycle that their children grow up seeing. It’s up to us as foster parents to set boundaries and teach kids in our care how to treat others, to help them learn how to have healthier relationships and break the cycle.

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