"Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story. I was that kid—that’s my story."
Josh Shipp is an author, global youth empowerment expert and acclaimed speaker. A former at-risk foster kid who “mastered the art of getting kicked out” of foster homes, he is renowned for his documentary TV series on A&E that followed his ground-breaking work with teens. His new book, The Grown-Up’s Guide to Teenage Humans releases September 19, 2017.
Josh’s Life in Foster Care
Josh doesn’t remember “coming into” foster care—he was basically in care since birth. From some digging that he’s done, he’s learned that his biological mom left him very early in life, much like her own mother left her. He knows she was 17 years old when he was born, and if he counts back from his birthdate, he wonders if he was conceived during prom season. It was rural Oklahoma in the 1980s, and being pregnant and unmarried was still thought to be somewhat shameful. Neighbors have told him that his mother simply took off for about a year—he assumes because the pressure and shame of being pregnant was too much.
“I’ve known no different,” than being raised in foster care, Josh says. “You adapt, gain strengths and weaknesses based on that. And the repercussions are still felt in adulthood.”
One thing he wonders now is whether his biological father even knew that his biological mom was pregnant. It’s different to think he may not have known at all, versus knowing and deciding not to be a part of his child’s life.
Josh’s first stop in foster care was in the home of his biological mom’s adoptive parents. “They were great people,” Josh says, but they were older at the time and had some health challenges, so taking care of an infant long term was not an option. Leaving their home was the first of many situations in which Josh found himself with a different foster family. His first memories are from about 4-5 years of age, and he mostly remembers feeling angry. “The first adult in my life broke my trust—so I assumed every other adult in my life would break my trust at some point.”
Josh says he’s seen and experienced that what kids can’t talk out, they will act out, but they may act out differently. Some kids are defiant; others turn inward. Josh’s life was so out of control that his m.o. was to make the adults in his life angry enough that they would walk away. The thought process being, if they are eventually going to walk away anyway, it was in Josh’s control.
Between the ages of 5 and 14 years of age, Josh figured out how to push people’s buttons and he sharpened that tool. He got so good at it that he even kept a log book and wrote down what worked and which strategies pushed the most buttons. “I left a wake of great people behind me; I was relentless and didn’t give foster parents a chance,” he says. Not all the situations were great, as he experienced physical and sexual abuse during his time in care. But by and large, the foster parents he had were good people.
Looking back, he recognizes that “what annoys us about our kids is usually about a degree off of their strengths.” That was certainly true for him.
One Caring Adult: Rodney
Eventually Josh was placed with Rodney and Christine in Yukon, Oklahoma, when he was about 14 years old. He started with his usual tactics: being obnoxious, rebellious, cussing, wreaking havoc. He stole a vehicle, and was caught trying to sell the vehicle. He wrote bad checks. He was suspended from school. But no matter how hard he pushed, they wouldn’t walk away. “I had never seen consistency like that before,” says Josh. “They were consistent not only in their encouragement, but in the consequences for poor behavior.”
That consistency actually provided safety and predictability, and a sense of control for Josh. “I remember being so amazed by that.”
After bailing Josh out of jail, Rodney spoke the phrase that Josh assumed meant he’d be moving on to another placement: “We need to sit and have a talk.”
Instead, Rodney, a middle school football coach and teacher, told Josh, “You can keep trying to mess up, but we don’t see you as a problem. We see you as an opportunity.”
Josh realized that in spite of all the times Rodney and Christine could have kicked him out, they really meant those words. At that moment, he stopped fighting and decided to work with them on the same team. That’s why Josh believes that every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story. “I was that kid—that’s my story. I lived it.” Rodney’s steadfastness completely changed things for Josh. And it’s why Josh believes that “all of us are qualified to be that one caring adult.”
It was Rodney’s consistency that caused the change—because it definitely wasn’t that Josh had sad feelings about the way he had acted, either while living with Rodney and Christine or with his other foster parents. He didn’t have sad feelings, because he had no feelings. “When you shut off your feelings, you shut them all off—sad, happy, humor, joy, sorrow. It’s like all your emotions are turned off by one valve,” Josh explains. “In fact, until I was 18 years old, I can’t remember crying at all.”
After the talk with Rodney, two things happened that continued to help Josh. The first was that he started going to church. “There were girls and free pizza,” so that was good incentive. But he also found other positive adults, and the kids themselves were, for the most part, good to be around.
The second thing was that Josh started going to counseling. “That was a game changer,” he says. At this point he had the desire to accept help.
“But I wish someone would have briefed me, or given me a healthy expectation of what would happen,” he says. Like knowing there is an uphill at the end of a three-mile hike, knowing what would happen would have been helpful for setting expectations. He was spooked by counseling in the beginning. “The first 3-5 sessions of counseling, I left feeling worse, not better, than when I arrived. So I naturally thought that counseling was ineffective, wouldn’t work and the counselor didn’t know what he was doing.”
But he finally ended up with the right counselor, Dr. Harrison Smith, with whom he still speaks monthly. Dr. Smith asked questions in such a way that that changed the way Josh thought about himself and what he had done, especially when asking about triggers and reactions.
Josh strongly recommends doing whatever it takes to get a traumatized child into counseling—even if bribery needs to be involved. “We all need incentive, and if you give a child the right incentive through a bribe that you would be okay with anyway, and give them a sense of control about it, counseling can make all the difference in the world.
His suggestion is to provide an incentive, require a minimum number of counseling sessions (at least six), and then give the teen some control about whether counseling continues after those initial sessions. “The value of counseling is hard to articulate, but use your influence to leverage cooperation knowing it will make a difference.”
TED talk (15-minutes)
Teen Trouble Documentary
The Grown-Up’s Guide to Teenage Humans
The TFI Story
Who Loves Series
Find a TFI Advocate Near You
Become a TFI Advocate
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Meet Our Guest
Josh Shipp is a former at-risk foster kid who now speaks to teens, parents, educators and mental health experts in order to help as many young people as possible. He trains aspiring speakers and has a popular online mentoring programs for teens as well as a free newsletter that offers strategies to parents, educators and youth workers. Josh and his family live in California.
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