Risk, Resilience and Identity Construction in the Life Narratives of Young People Leaving Residential Care

This paper explores the experiences of transition to adulthood of 20 young people leaving residential care.

  • By Gillian Schofield, Birgitt Larsson and Emma Ward
  • Child and Family Social Work 22 (2016)

The study focused on the development of resilience; the extent to which the young people's emotional and behavioural difficulties had been resolved; and whether they had a coherent identity and the necessary qualities, skills and coping strategies as they moved from residential care in early adulthood.

The authors identified four interacting factors associated with resilience that were key to successful transitions:

  • Connection: how young people described the quality of their relationship and sense of belonging
  • Agency: the extent to which young people were able to make choices about their lives and influence events by their own actions
  • Constructive activity: engagement with education, activities and work
  • Coherence of the narrative: whether the stories made sense and indicated that past experience had been processed and feelings resolved.

The specific ways in which young people defined themselves and their situation earlier in childhood continued to have an impact during adolescence and adulthood. The authors highlight the importance of nurturing relationships and a sense of "family", and also the role of support after leaving residential care.

Different pathways

The young people attributed different meanings to their experiences, which affected their identity and resilience. These reflected Stein's analysis of leaving care outcomes in terms of moving on, surviving and struggling, as described below:

  • Love and loss to moving on. Young people described some positive childhood experiences, but this was accompanied by grief through loss of caregivers (for example through death or separation). The residential home was a positive experience for these young people. They had pro-social strategies for managing their lives and seeking help from a range of people.
  • Victim to survivor. Although these young people described themselves as victims, the good relationships they experienced in residential care led to a positive transformation from victim to survivor identity. Becoming a survivor was linked to both a sense of agency and connection. Although they had become more resilient, some vulnerabilities persisted. This meant that there was a risk of helplessness and victimhood re-emerging in adulthood.
  • Victim to struggling. Victimhood had not been resolved for these young people. They made persistent emotional demands of others and became disappointed when care was not immediately available. This led to the reappearance of feelings of rejection and victimhood. They expressed ambivalence about people in their lives and found it difficult to accept help and develop stable, supportive relationships.
  • "Bad child" to survivor. These young people blamed themselves and their behaviour for the bad things that had happened to them. In the children's home they experienced positive transformations and discovered their own worth through caring relationships. These positive relationships were linked to changes in their behaviour. There was a sense of agency and connection, although some vulnerabilities persisted.
  • "Bad child" to struggling. These narratives were also dominated by young people's view of themselves as "bad children". Unlike the previous group, the sense of self-blame persisted. Memories of bad behaviour were linked to justifications rather than regret. These young people remained troubled as adults, even though they had some positive memories and had found greater stability in the children's home than previous placements.

Implications for practice

This study highlights the importance of staff in residential care building trusting and enduring relationships with young people. Having such relationships was described by young people as staff being like family and "being there" for them beyond leaving care. This sense of belonging can offer positive transformation and a sense of permanence for young people through adolescence and into adulthood.

The study also stresses the role of staff in helping young people gain a sense of agency, as positive achievements in education or work was linked to young people's capacity to make trusting relationships and feeling more in control of their lives.

The authors also highlight the importance of listening to the underlying meanings of young people's stories of adverse childhoods and helping them to make sense of why they may find it difficult to accept help, form relationships and become more resilient.

Although the sample size and representativeness are limitations, this study has demonstrated the importance of considering the different ways in which young people construct and give meanings to their childhood and adolescent experiences.


Related resources:

  • Supporting adolescents on the edge of care: The role of short term stays in residential care. An evidence scope. Jo Dixon, Jenny Lee, Sarah Ellison, Leslie Hicks, Action for Children and NSPCC, April 2015
  • The Place of Residential Care in the English Child Welfare System. Research report. Di Hart, Ivana La Valle, University of East London, and Lisa Holmes, Loughborough University, June 2015
  • Therapeutic approaches to social work in residential child care settings. Literature review. Geraldine Macdonald and Dr Sharon Millen, Institute of Child Care Research, Queens University Belfast. May 2012
  • "They helped me, they supported me" Achieving outcomes and value for money in secure children's homes. Justice Studio. April 2014
  • Our Lives Our Care: Looked after children's views on their well-being. Professor Julie Selwyn and Linda Briheim-Crookall, Univesrity of Bristol and Coram Voice, 2017

Related resources by Research in Practice:

  • Analysis and critical thinking in assessment 2nd Edition: Handbook
  • Reflective supervision: Change Project pilot resources
  • Regarding the use of practice observation methods as part of the assessment of social work practice: Evidence Scope
  • That difficult age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence
  • Promoting resilience in children young people and families Frontline Briefing
  • Young person centred approaches in CSE: Promoting participation and building self efficacy: Frontline Briefing
  • Risk taking adolescents and child protection: Strategic Briefing
  • Children and young people missing from care and vulnerable to sexual exploitation: Strategic Briefing
  • RiP runs bespoke training workshops for residential children's home managers and practitioners. For more details contact vicki.giles@rip.org.uk

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

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