For youth who grew up under adversity, the transition to adulthood in the late teens is a critical stage for helping them turn their lives around, recent research has found.
The report, entitled Listening to Vulnerable Youth: Transitioning to Adulthood in British Columbia, said that while disadvantaged youth “want and dream of better futures,” many who left school early, lack family support, or are involved in risky or even criminal behaviour face an uphill battle.
“They are struggling to reconnect to their families or to anyone who cares. Coming from backgrounds of family dysfunction, abuse, discrimination, bullying, homophobia, homelessness, drugs, criminal activities and school dropout, they arrive at the threshold of adulthood with few opportunities for re-entry,” the report said.
“One of the main problems they encounter is the loss of all support services when they turn 19,” said University of Victoria psychologist Bonnie Leadbeater, co-author of the research.
The report summarizes the results of consultations with 75 youth aged 14 to 28.
The research recommends broader change in areas such as providing life-skills for the transition to adulthood, extending youth services to older ages, integrating access to services, providing permanent life mentors, extending low-cost housing to youth, and combating bullying and discrimination in schools.
In addition, “[greater] appreciation of what these youth have been through is needed so that we can be sensitive to their needs and try to do something more worthwhile,” said University of Victoria psychologist Bonnie Leadbeater, co-author of the research.
“These kids have been thought of as ‘good for nothing,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘it’s too late.’ People don’t always appreciate the disadvantage that they’re coming from and how hard it has been for some of these kids. It’s as if they’ve somehow in adolescence just chosen to be ‘good for nothing,’ dropping out of school,” she said.
“It doesn’t work like that … You’re building on a path where either you’ve had supportive family and many advantages, or a path where you’ve had nothing and possibly abusive relationships. Or parents who themselves weren’t able to parent because of alcoholism, mental health problems, poverty, or whatever.”
‘I lost my family and everything’
What stand out in the report are poignant voices from the youth themselves that tell of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and struggle—but also of recovery, resilience, and hope.
“I’ve had a lot of experience, but that doesn’t mean I know how to act like an adult,” one said.
Another said, “I only make like $8.50. And I live on my own, and I have to live off that. It’s stupid, and I have been doing it for like two years …”
“Even phoning like Kids Help Phone … I have had a few people hang up on me. … You are crying. And at one point I was almost ready to lose it and I was on the edge literally and she was like: ‘Oh, you’re 21. I can’t help you,’” said another youth.
Speaking about the meaning of family, one said: “I hit rock bottom … I was into drugs and everything else, and actually this program saved my life. I lost my family and everything, but the way that I am looking at it now is just ‘cause they are blood doesn’t mean they are family. And I am starting to find out actually who my family is.”
“Some of the quotes are pretty heart-wrenching, particularly some of the bullying that these kids experienced at school, that made school a hostile environment for them,” Ms. Leadbeater said.
These young people miss a lot of ordinary life, she said. This includes life skills that their more advantaged peers learn at home or at school to prepare them to live independently as adults, such as paying bills, managing a budget, buying groceries, cooking, career planning, accessing healthcare, finding housing, and getting a job.
“I hit rock bottom … I was into drugs and everything else, and actually this program saved my life. I lost my family and everything, but the way that I am looking at it now is just ‘cause they are blood doesn’t mean they are family. And I am starting to find out actually who my family is.”
Youth with caring families continue to have them for advice and support, said Ms. Leadbeater. And post-secondary students have access to a healthcare centre and career counsellors as well as financial support from parents or guardians, or the ability to get jobs themselves.
“They have so many more advantages than these kids, and many of those advantages are paid by our taxes. So it seems unfair that we only support some of our children—that some are getting a lot of advantages and some are getting none, and the ones getting none are kids who are already disadvantaged in many ways.”
‘They’re still very hopeful’
In Canada, the legal age of adulthood varies from 18 to 19 across jurisdictions. When young people age out of youth services they must learn to find their way in the world of adult services.
Yet even among youth from stable homes, many do not feel ready to call themselves adults by these ages, said the report. “All youth need a permanent life mentor,” it said.
Rather than breaking the bonds and leaving vulnerable youth to struggle on their own, they need an ongoing network of support. This includes continuing active support from people such as foster parents, youth services, social workers, and probation officers, said Ms. Leadbeater.
“It’s not easy to find someone, and extending some of these services to that age group or having more youth friendly services would be an advantage to these kids. You need someone to go to.”
The Ministry of Children and Family Development in British Columbia has extended their independent living plan to youth over 19, the age of majority in that province, Ms. Leadbeater said.
She noted, however, that in addition to monetary aid from the government, service agreements with youth are most helpful if they also include essential support such as for learning life skills, finding housing, finishing school, and getting employment.
The report also recommends listening to youth’s input before creating policies that affect them; extending public transportation hours; providing gender- and culturally specific programming; and providing help that allows for self-respect, choice, and self-determination.
“At this age, they’re really at the edge of either doing well or having a hard time for a very long time … The resilience that some of them show is remarkable. Others go on to have some fairly serious long-term mental health problems and then we see them in our practice further along.”
But “this is a good point for kids to re-engage with their communities,” Ms. Leadbeater said. “They’re still very hopeful … They’re really hoping that their lives will turn out.”