C.S. Lewis wrote, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” What a great metaphor for the process of guiding any youth, but especially foster youth, to successfully take flight as an adult.
By and large, foster youth are often mired in a complicated web of challenges, issues and looming obstacles on their pathway to adulthood, including: limited resources, unhealed wounds from trauma, little to no support (especially from family), and fuzzy future plans. Add to these existing circumstances the competing forces of fear and excitement felt by most teens and you can see why it’s hard “for an egg to turn into a bird”. But, as with the rest of us, this transformation has to happen for successful flight to take place.
Transitional Age Youth (TAY) practitioners play a special role in preparing these youth for takeoff:
- First, it is important to stop protecting the “egg”, instead, focusing on strengthening the bird for its journey. I have been amazed over the decades to see so many social workers and caretakers obsessed with protection, leaving the youth substantially unprepared to jump the nest. It is my agency’s philosophy to allow for trial and error–successes and failures. It’s a lot easier to pick up the pieces and start over again under the watchful care of a skilled worker than to see a young person crash and burn without a safety net.
- Second, they need help to build a safety net of community and natural supports. Every TAY served by our agency is guided through the process of creating a Transitional Living Team to serve and assist them after they have launched into independent adulthood. This usually includes agency staff and “systems” people, but most importantly, it includes friends, family, significant others, teachers, et cetera; basically, anyone these youth feel connected to who is willing to commit to supporting them. This element is about establishing PERMANENT relationships–identifying who they can call for wise words in turbulent times or who will provide them solace and respite, and where they can go on Thanksgiving, holidays and other special occasions.
- Third, make sure TAY are instructed in real-life skill building and not didactic workshops and classes which have little impact. Many years ago my agency implemented a hands-on, guided workbook approach developed with foster youth. Using the LIFEBOOK©, TAY are able to master skills that they have been assessed to be deficient in. It really works; plus, it gives these youth a resource to carry with them into the future.
- Finally, and what I consider to be very important, teach them to be prepared for CHANGE, and to use it to their advantage! Remember, there is nothing permanent except change. Unfortunately, this truth is rarely discussed or taught about in the grand scheme of TAY “lifeskill development.” Resiliency is positively managing change!
The reality is that most of these young people are used to change, but most of the change in their lives has been negative. It’s our job as youth workers to re-frame the change process into a positive skill. I like to use the “rocks versus river” metaphor when teaching about the positive benefits of harnessing change to our advantage. Life is the river, constantly moving, constantly changing. We can choose to be that rock which resists the energy of change, and, over time becomes worn down. Or, we can choose to go with the flow of change, allowing it to take us to new destinations.
There are three faces of change youth need to know and understand:
- Change which happens to us
- Change which we self-initiate
- Change which we help to create
Change happens to all of us, whether we want it or not. The key lesson is how we react to it. Youth must be taught to react to change as an opportunity to move to a new, better place, and avoid the self-pity “woe is me” trap.
Bob Dylan said it well, “that which is not busy being born is busy dying.” Youth must be taught the value of ongoing, self-initiated change and improvement. This type of change is about personal development, improvement, pursuing visions and dreams, and reaching goals–benefits which only happen through the process of change. Using the river metaphor again, water which is not consistently moving and changing becomes stagnant and dead. So do we! It is far better to initiate change than to be constantly reacting to or being paralyzed by it.
And lastly, teaching young people leadership skills is, in essence, helping to create change for the broader benefit of others, which ultimately reciprocates back to us. The California Youth Connection (CYC) is a wonderful example of creating positive change for the benefit of a larger audience. Advocacy–be it political, social, environmental, et cetera–is about creating and initiating change. If we want our youth to become positive leaders, we need to teach them how to be.
June is the month where many of our foster youth fly off to new destinations. Let’s make sure that they do so as strong, well-equipped, resilient individuals; excited and hopeful for their future.