Working With Adolescents and Discovering the 'Voice of the Youth'

I began my social work career working with adolescents. I worked with, and eventually studied, issues pertaining to runaways, homeless youth, youth with incarcerated parents and now older youth in foster care. While at the time I did not recognize the common thread across these populations, I now see that I always was interested in youth who were separated from their parents, either by their own actions or the actions of others. Much of my focus has been on how to either rekindle the parent-child relationship or to help youth find other adults in their lives who would commit to supporting them for the long term.

Why teens? My take on society’s perception of adolescents, admittedly painted with a broad stroke, was similar then to what it is now: I had a tendency to view teens as difficult, emotionally tormented individuals who frequently make poor decisions and can be unpleasant to be around. This perception was supported by stories I heard from my colleagues who worked with teens as well as from friends who shared of their own teen years. It crystallized for me when my 10-year-old daughter informed me last summer that she dreaded becoming a teenager because adults would no longer like her. She cited example after example of adult conversations she’d overheard in which they described their adolescent children with an array of negative anecdotes and adjectives, followed by eruptions of laughter and nods of agreement. She didn’t want to suddenly become, by virtue of passing time, a person no longer valued by the adult world.

We sometimes forget that adolescents are, in fact, children, despite their adult-sized bodies. When I got past the outer protective shell, what I found with homeless youth was scared, vulnerable, hurting children who desperately wanted to be loved and respected. As I shifted to the foster care system, I found a plethora of resources for young children and waiting lists of foster parents who want to care for them; however, once they become teens, they are considered "unadoptable" and "difficult-to-place" in foster home settings. As such, they are often relegated to less family-like settings such as group homes. These are the kids who are most likely to linger in foster care until they turn 18, aging out of the system instead of reunifying with their parents or being adopted. What we now know about these young people is that when they "age out" of the child welfare system, they have a very rough transition to young adulthood. Without the safety net of family support, they are at extremely high risk of joblessness, homelessness and incarceration. The system that was set up to protect children fails them once they are no longer small, and we all pay the price when a young adult is homeless or in prison rather than an engaged and contributing member of society.

One of the core values of my profession is "the importance of human relationships." As a social worker, I lean toward solutions that occur through this venue. While we often think of adolescence as a time of separation and independence, we often do not see that this occurs in the context of relationships and interdependence. A recent research study of mine was an evaluation of a foster care program called Creating Ongoing Relationships Effectively (CORE) at Family Alternatives, Inc. CORE focused on older youth in foster care, helping them identify supportive adults in their lives who would commit to seeing them through their transitions out of foster care and into adulthood. We learned from that study that these youth want such relationships but do not have the skills to build them nor the ability to recognize potential supporters. More importantly, we learned that supportive adults are, in fact, out there and willing to help. We also found it is critical that older foster youth be given the reins to take charge of their lives and make decisions while they were still in care. It was hard for adults to permit the youth to make "poor" decisions. Yet, shortly, in some cases only a few months, they would be completely on their own. The CORE model encourages youth to play out their choices and make mistakes before they are on their own, when the stakes are lower.

I now am embarking on a related three-year study, "Fostering Youth Transitions," funded by the Andrus Family Fund, which will be conducted with the same agency. The study will assess the effectiveness of a framework developed to help youth and their foster parents make sense of the emotional and social processes youth undergo during major life transitions, in particular the transition into and out of foster care. If this study demonstrates that the framework improves outcomes for young adults once they age out, it will be one of the only such tools available for social workers.

In keeping with the CORE model of youth empowerment, at the center of the transitions study is the voice of the youth. In all the adolescent topics I’ve studied, most of the information about children comes from adults. We have so much to learn when we listen to the ideas and perceptions of children and youth. In my earlier research years, I conducted one of the first studies to interview children of incarcerated parents rather than gather information about them from other sources. The teens in my runaway and foster care studies always have proven to be incredibly articulate and insightful. I count on them to help us adults make sense of their world.

Engaging students in research is critical to me. I want to witness another generation of social workers who not only use information from research but also want to engage in it. For that reason, I built research assistant funding into my grant proposal. It allows me to hire both an undergraduate BSW student and a graduate MSW student through the school year as well as the summers for the next three years. Already, only a few months into the study, they are highly engaged, and in response I have opened more opportunities to meet their enthusiasm. They have taken charge of managing data, have suggested ideas for measurement and analysis, and not only attend the foster agency meetings but are active participants.

Andrea Nesmith is assistant professor at the School of Social Work.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.