Harmony and her mom, Rebecca, have a lot in common. They both love makeup. They both like to dye their hair fun colors (Harmony maybe more than Rebecca, who says she embraced her rainbow-hued hair mostly because “getting our hair done was something we could do together”). And they both spent 8 years of their lives in foster care.

“I’m a totally different mom because I was in foster care,” says Rebecca, who aged out at 19. “I went through my teenage years feeling unwanted and unloved. I wouldn’t let Harmony go through that.”

Harmony echoes a similar sentiment about Rebecca. “When I met her, my attitude toward people changed. I would see kids in the store saying ‘Mommy’ and I knew they had a mother and a father that loved each other and I would miss my family. But I remember one day I was sick and Rebecca brought me flowers and a teddy bear.”

Many people assume that because teens in recruitment are waiting to be adopted, they must want to get integrated into a family as quickly as possible. That’s not always true, though, and lots of teens like Harmony prefer to move at a slower pace and take their time to settle in. “Things didn’t go so fast, which was a good thing. I already had a mom, so I thought it was a bad thing to call someone else ‘Mom.’ It took me a while.”

“I never pushed it,” says Rebecca, “because I understood.”

Harmony admits that the adoption process was difficult for her. “I always thought being in foster care was my fault, even though my caseworker told me it wasn’t anything I did. It was hard for me to focus on school because I was always wondering where I would be living next. I kept the stuff I cared about in a bag under the bed.” Even after her adoption was final, Harmony says she had a hard time believing that she was truly wanted. She remembers deciding to run away once; rather than being angry, though, Rebecca was able to use that as a point of connection. “I told her a story about the time I ran away. We were both in care for 8 years. That has helped us understand each other.”

For parents who are considering adopting, or have just finalized an adoption, Harmony offers this wisdom from someone who’s been on the other side: communicate. “Talk with your teen. Help them with what they need and always ask about their day, every day. When someone asks about your day, that’s how you know they care.”

So many families are afraid of adopting teens, or feel like if they do, they’ll miss out on all the “firsts.” And it’s true, you won’t have a photo album of their first haircut or a video of their first steps. But, as Rebecca suggests, maybe it’s more about what you will have: “I adopted Harmony when she was 14 years old. We’ve shared so many firsts—first boyfriend, first heartbreak, first driving lesson…. I’ll be there on her wedding day, and you know what? I’ll be the first person to tell her how beautiful she is.”

If you’re thinking about adopting a teen, or have even just taken one as a foster placement, Rebecca has a couple of simple suggestions: “Take the time to get to know them. Don’t be afraid to hug them and tell them you’re happy they’re around.” And, she’s got some not-so-simple ones, too. “Be flexible. Don’t put unrealistic expectations on them. They’re teens, but teens are still kids. They have a lot of learning and growing up still to do.”

She pauses. “When I was growing up, I had foster parents who would leave me at home when they went on vacation with their biological kids, or would make me buy my own clothes. It just made me feel left out and different. No kid wants that. So if you want a teen to feel like they’re part of your family – permanently – you have to treat them that way.”

It hasn’t always been easy. There were lots of days that Rebecca struggled with her own simple and not-so-simple suggestions. Harmony nods her head knowingly, acknowledging that she wasn’t always the easiest teen to raise. Still, they both say, “She’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

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