The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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How to Drop the Hot Potato
Why do foster youth have sex and babies earlier?
Represent staff

Lester spoke to Represent about teen sex and parenting and the effects of past abuse on both.

Q. Statistics show that teens in foster care tend to have sex at a younger age than other teens. Why is that?

A. All people, but especially kids in foster care, have a longing for closeness. The desire to be special to someone else—to be seen—can so easily become sexualized. If there haven’t been supportive adults, kids may feel hopeless about getting recognition in any other way besides sex.

There is also a certain power in having sex—it feels like the other person owes you something because you give them sex. But that bond may have more to do with power, and the need to be seen, than with your feelings.

When you’re so deprived and hungry for someone to pay attention to you, hold you, love you, then messages from other people are not read in the same way. A kid who wants love and has been disappointed by parents and other caretakers is more likely to accept whatever it is the other person wants to give them, even if it’s not love. You may not be as good at reading the real message, at telling the difference between love and sex.

Also, if you haven’t had good parenting, it might be harder for you to control your own impulses. Parents are supposed to help you make a bridge between feeling and acting on that feeling. Without that, it’s hard to think through the long-term consequences of your actions.

It’s like eating all the ice cream because you don’t know how to stop and then regretting it when it makes you feel sick. The sexual version of this is jumping into having sex that doesn’t make you feel good later on.

Q. Do you have any advice for teens on how to talk to a potential partner before having sex?

A. Talking honestly to your partner and listening are very important, because this is how you build trust. Earning and learning trust are paths to real, reciprocal love.

image by YC-Art Dept

What everybody wants is to be seen, known, recognized. So ask some version of, “Do you know me? Who do you think I am? What do you like about me? What would you do if something bad happened to me?”

Remember, you have more control as you get older. As an abused kid or a foster kid, you’ve experienced a lot of helplessness, but teenagers are less helpless than children. It’s important to learn that you can take charge of your life.

Before you have sex, ask yourself, “How’s this going to feel tomorrow? Next week? At the end of the school year?” Ask yourself, “What can I count on this person for? Can I call her up if I’m sad? Does he want to hang out with me even if we’re not going to have sex?”

Also, really practical, concrete questions are especially helpful when all the emotional stuff is so murky: “Is it OK with me if I get an STD? If I give it to other people? If I’m pregnant? If I have an abortion? If I have a baby?”

Q. Teens in foster care are more likely to have babies than other teens. What are some possible reasons for that?

A. For everybody, there’s the idea of a future through a baby—people kind of extend themselves through time by having a baby. For foster kids especially, it’s a fresh version of themselves with a new future. It’s full of wishes that don’t necessarily have to do with your baby or your sexual partner, like getting the love you never got and having the family you never had.

There’s a strong desire for unconditional love, to give it even if you’re not getting it. You may offer it to the wrong person: “I will bring this bad boyfriend around with my unconditional love.” It’s a confused idea of being super-powerful. It can make a girl have a baby despite the obstacles in her life: She believes that a pregnancy can transform a bad guy or that she can make a good life for her baby even if she has no resources.

Teenage girls often see pregnancy as the definition of a successful, productive woman. It makes them feel grown-up to get pregnant and to have a baby. For boys, too, they now have someone to take care of, someone depending on them. They think being a parent will automatically turn them into responsible adults.

Another appealing thing about being pregnant for some teen girls is that there’s no secret that you’ve had sex. As opposed to abusive sex, which is shrouded in secrecy, you’re saying “I had sex and I’m proud of it.”

image by YC-Art Dept

Q: Kids who have been abused often worry about becoming abusive parents. How can you break the cycle?

A. It takes a lot of work for the victim of abuse to become a successfully protective parent. It’s not conscious or deliberate, but these things get passed on unconsciously.

There’s such rage at the parent who hasn’t protected you; if you don’t get past that it’s hard to genuinely protect your kids. It takes a certain understanding for an abused kid to recognize that her parent was unprotected and simply unable to avoid the repetition. There is a tendency to repeat what you know.

You need to say about an abusive parent, “Something went really wrong with that person and it ain’t my job to fix it.” You can know that something terrible probably happened to that person and they’re passing it along. It’s like a hot potato that they’re passing along because it’s too unbearable to hold it, to look at or understand it.

You should remember that it’s not your hot potato you’re holding—it’s not your fault. It’s less unbearable to hold it if you know “it’s not mine.” The choice the adult abuser (or unprotective parent) made was to throw it on to you. In order for you to put it down, to not throw it onto your own children, you have to look at it.

To look at it, you should ask yourself, “What am I afraid of now? What do I fear that I might do or might not be able to do? What parts of myself do I like or feel good about, what parts do I feel ashamed about?” The shame and the bad parts are usually the hot potato. Therapy is one good way to look at the hot potato; writing is another; talking in groups about it is another.

Kids need to disentangle the parts of themselves they feel good about and the parts they feel bad about. The hot potato was handed to you, you didn’t create it. You can drop it, you can say, “That’s not me and I don’t want anyone else to have to hold it.”

Either/or thinking, to think everyone’s either good or bad, is not helpful. You need to realize that everyone’s some good and some bad. If you indulge that “I’m bad” side too much, you can’t hope to be good and you’re likelier to be an abuser. If you think you’re dirty, if you believe you have to fool people to think you’re good and clean, then what you do doesn’t matter in a way. All that makes it likelier you could be an abuser.

You can’t change that you got abused, but you do have the power to change yourself so that you feel good about yourself. Choose to do things separate from the hot potato, separate from things any abusive or cruel caretaker said about you, separate from abuse.

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