Investing in termination: intervening with youth in the transition to independent living
Varda Mann-Feder & Trish White
It is well documented in the human development literature that the transition to independence is one of the most significant and ambivalent achievements of the life span (Kroger,1996). At the same time, it is a critical transition that has been shown to exert lifelong influence on the quality of adult life (Graber, Brooks-Gunn, & Petersen, 1996). Well-adjusted youth who grow up in a family setting may often make multiple attempts at moving out before finally settling on their own. Upheaval and decreased self-evaluations are common among all adolescents in the midst of this transition, as it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the many new demands and pressures of independent living (Graber et al., 1996).
Youth in care take on this difficult transition with added emotional burdens. They often face severance from their workers and cannot always rely on having support once they are on their own (Algate,1994). Independent living is not necessarily sought out by clients, yet becomes, at times, the only discharge option (often, ironically, for our most disadvantaged adolescents). Thus, steps toward independence stimulate memories of initial placement experiences and rekindle rage and confusion. Unresolved emotional issues block the learning of necessary life skills (Iglehart, 1994), making apartment hunting and job applications extremely daunting because of the painful separation issues they represent. Professionals working directly with youth in the transition to independent living may have difficulty helping clients to work through their anger and fear, as they themselves may lose hope if they see independent living as loss rather than as achievement. Paradoxically, adolescents leaving care often refuse or resist follow-up services so that scarce resources are usually allocated elsewhere. However, it is known that timing and the manner in which services are withdrawn has a huge impact on the level of adjustment to independent living (Thompson, 1996). Although recent child welfare literature has increasingly stressed the importance of supporting the
transition to independent living (Mech,1994), both the programs that are documented and the research that is published emphasize the teaching and learning of “life skills” or “skills for self-sufficiency” (Scannapieco & Schagrin,1995) such as budgeting, cooking, job hunting, and so on, and fail to acknowledge the importance of working with the internal issues at the same time.
THE MOVIN’ ON GROUP
It was the consensus of the Movin’ On team that any successful intervention for this population would make use of the peer group, rather than relying on one-on-one contacts between youth and adults. A group approach was seen as most promising, both because the client group was in mid to late adolescence and because many had not established trusting relationships with professionals (Berkovitz & Sugar, 1983). It was also hoped that providing an opportunity for relationships apart from the client’s daily life would make the exploration of any ambivalence about leaving less threatening. Every attempt was made to mix adolescents from different parts of the agency who were not living together so that a safe and neutral environment could be created that would facilitate peer modelling, support, and self-expression. The program was designed so that participants could focus on feelings, begin to identify how emotions can become obstacles to successful discharge, and help each other to find new ways to cope.
A second important goal of the Movin’ On project was to learn more about the emotional side of leaving care and to observe the impact of group counselling on youth who are in the midst of this experience. The professional team hoped to sensitize staff from across residential services to the complexities of the transition to independence and the need for approaches that take the emotional issues into account. Different types of data were collected in the course of this pilot project. The group was co-facilitated by a female psychologist and a male child and youth care worker, and all sessions were videotaped with the clients’ permission. The rest of the team observed all meetings behind a one-way mirror, again with the members’ consent. The youth were interviewed individually, both before and after the eight-week intervention.
The initial plan had been to recruit clients from community-based group homes who had demonstrated a capacity to engage verbally with adults. The hope had been that a high functioning group would respond more read readily to the program, and would also maximize our learning about accessing termination issues in this population. In the end, we accepted clients who would not have met the initial, ambitious criteria for acceptance. We had clients from highly structured residential settings and members with a history of poor interactions with professionals.
OVERVIEW OF THE INTERVENTION
Issues in planning
The team decided early on that two facilitators, one male and one female, would be desirable, as outlined in the literature on group work with adolescents (Maclennan & Felsenfeld, 1968). The content of group discussions was extremely provocative, and it would have been difficult for a single leader to both facilitate the group and monitor the level of anxiety of those individuals who were having a difficult time. The two co-leaders were also able to consult on the direction of the group as it went along, and modelled communication and problem solving for the group. However, it became necessary for the co-leaders to consistently plan and debrief each meeting, and to stay aware of the roles they each played in the group. There were three other staff members who observed the group each week. Group members were aware of this, and there was explicit contracting around confidentiality, so that although the observers did give feedback to the co-leaders, they did not discuss their observations with the members or any outside staff.
The ground rules for members were clearly stated at the beginning of Movin’ On. Although physical acting out was strictly forbidden, any form of verbal expression was encouraged (e.g., the use of profanity was not commented on, as it was understood to be an important means of self-expression). At the same time, members were asked to treat each other with respect and accept differences of opinion. Members were never required to speak, and were always given the option to not respond to a question or exercise. Listening was seen as a viable and active form of participation, so that individual differences in levels of verbal ability could be accommodated.
Preparation of materials for each week proved to be a labour-intensive but central function for planning. It was decided to hold group meetings in the late afternoon to accommodate school and work schedules, and to pro vide a sizeable snack. The snacks were extremely important to the members, and every attempt was made to accommodate their choices, however outlandish. Food became one aspect of the safe and nurturing environment of the group, and while its consumption was almost continuous throughout the meetings, foods were chosen that were comforting but would not require so much effort to eat that it would provide a major distraction. Members were encouraged to take home any leftovers, and this also contributed to a positive climate.
In addition to food, there were activities planned for each session that required props or art materials. Games were used to promote group identity and self-awareness, and became a starting point for discussion of various topics, especially because it was not expected that the members would move easily into talking about feelings. Although these materials were useful, it was found that the more elaborate activities dominated to the point where self-expression was actually discouraged. It also became apparent that group members were more able to express themselves than we had expected, even making good use of silence to work through issues. The elaborate games were more for the leaders than for them! In fact, many of the initials plans were adjusted as the group’s readiness to deal with feelings emerged.
Structure of the group meetings
the members has an opportunity to open the meeting with a statement of how they are feeling. Similarly, each meeting ended with a “check-out.” These rituals promoted a sense of inclusion; they created a norm around sharing feelings and maximizing feedback; and they allowed members to ventilate before leaving to go back to their normal routines. As the group progressed, the check-ins and check-outs became more elaborate and more meaningful and set the stage for the work of the group. After the check-in, either a preplanned activity or introduction of a topic for discussion would be used to stimulate work on a topic for the day. In addition, short physical games were added at times where the topics were particularly difficult and it was deemed important to “blow off steam” before the check-out. Group leaders participated in all games and activities with group members.
Sequencing of themes
Movin’ On was an intense and compelling experience for both the group members and the professionals involved. The clients benefited beyond initial expectations, and the team learned much about working with adolescents in the transition to independent living.
Both the questionnaire data and direct feedback from the youth in the group suggest that Movin’ On had a positive impact. Before the group started, members described a broad range of feelings about leaving care, with the most oft-cited feelings being happiness, worry, excitement, nervousness, fear,
and pride. After Movin’ On, the range of feelings was narrower and more specific. Fear was no longer cited, although clients still acknowledged that they were worried. Before Movin’ On, the most pressing issues for clients were finding a job and apartment, dealing with family issues, saying goodbye to the agency, and dealing with potential difficulties with friends. Saying goodbye was not seen as an issue left to deal with after the termination of the group.
The feedback from the adolescents on the impact of the group was extremely favourable. They felt it had been one of their best group experiences and that it had given them strength to stand on their own. The following are some of the comments: the group “taught me that there are people out there that I can talk to,” “taught me how to speak out,” “opened my mind to different subjects, respect for other people’s opinions,” and “I got the feeling that people know what I’m going through.” If anything, the youth wished they had been able to participate in a Movin’ On group earlier in the discharge planning process.
The Movin’ On group provided invaluable learning for staff. We were stunned at the degree of self-disclosure and willingness to participate, even in a group of clients who were seen as somewhat resistant. If anything, the need for an emotional outlet and the extent of psychological pressure in the transition to independent living had been underestimated. The clients, as diverse as they were, were able to connect with each other and provide appropriate support, even though they often disagreed. Although clients initially described their plans with bravado and an exaggerated sense of self-confidence, not far beneath the surface lay an awareness of the dangers of “out there” – members shared their fears of isolation, homelessness, and being exploited. As mentioned earlier, few structured activities were really required in the end: once the members perceived the group as safe, they were eager to talk. It made the Movin’ On team aware of our own need to fill up the group with upbeat games rather than face the difficult issues of separation and loss, again confirming that there are powerful feelings professionals need to master in themselves in order to help clients in this transition.
Services for youth in care who are on their way to
independent living need to expand. The Movin’ On experience proved that
adolescents can make use of an opportunity to explore the emotional strains of
this transition. A group intervention has many potential benefits for this
population. It can confirm that ambivalent feelings are a normal part of
moving out and need to be addressed to ensure a smoother transition. It can
provide a safe, neutral environment where these feelings can be explored. It
can also assist in the creation of a network of support by bringing together
youth who are struggling with similar issues. Whether these benefits persist
once clients leave care remains to be seen. The Movin’ On team will be seeking
research funding for a larger scale project that will include a longitudinal
study of youth in care as they move into independence.
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