The youth-written stories in YCteen 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
How can youth who were abused keep from abusing?
Represent staff
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Sylvia Lester, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has been working for many years with foster and adoptive children and families. She is a supervisor for The Fostering Connection, an organization in New York that provides free long-term therapy to foster-affected youth to heal the wounds of trauma, loss, and separation. A Home Within offers similar services across the country (ahomewithin.org).

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 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 separate from 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 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 a responsible adult.

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. There’s rage at the parent who hasn’t protected you; if you don’t get past that it’s hard to 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. 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.

Remember, 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.

You can’t change that you got abused, but you do have the power to 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.

This is an excerpted reprint from the Summer 2010 issue of Represent.

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