Have you ever felt powerless and disabled from making decisions? Has the fear of change or transition ever left you pretending that the events you are experiencing are not happening to you?
Most people experience moments like this in life, sometimes as a result of bereavement or loss, sometimes out of a crisis beyond their control. These are not the everyday experience of most of us; they are points of crisis in time. They are not a regular occurrence in our lives, and consequently most of us recover. Can you imagine, however, sustained and consistent periods change and transition in your life with the feelings noted above, and if you can, can you imagine yourself being able to function with any degree of normality? Welcome to the world of the troubled youth in care environments throughout the world.
I have been involved in working with young people in difficulty for nearly twenty years, eleven of those years in residential practice, and I thought I understood about change and transition. It is only recently that I have begun to appreciate how limited my previous knowledge and understanding was, and to a considerable degree still is. Transitions are difficult for all people, but for many of the children in residential programmes throughout the UK, and throughout the world, experiences of disabling enforced change happen on a daily basis, and how these children cope with change needs to be understood by those providing care and support to young people in such circumstances.
Dilts (1998) informs us “change and transition are a journey into the unknown, different for every individual and organisation.” He notes further “change and transition are simultaneously the source of and outcome of all interactions within a living system.” Change, he asserts, “is the basis of both growth and destruction and thus it can be either a resource or a problem, depending upon the impact it has on the individual and on the rest of the system.”
The notion of change and transition being a source of growth and at the same time a potential source of destruction is what makes transition such a difficult phenomenon to understand, as each of us has a unique experience of change and transition dependent on our life circumstances. The assumption made by many is that if I handled that change and it was okay for me, then everybody should be able to. However as Walker (2001) points out, “due to their unique needs children and youth with emotional or behavioural challenges are disproportionately likely to face transitions which are neither planned or desired.” So the normal age-defined transitions expected of us all, such as nursery to school, school to work or independence, are not indicative of the volume of change and transition experienced by young people living out with their families.
Hartman and Zimberoff (2005) advise, “Humans in general prefer constancy and status quo to instability and change, and therefore when change inevitably comes they attempt to avoid the transition between the status quo and whatever comes next.” They go on further to say that “… the avoidance can come in many forms of indecision, ambivalence, and procrastination.” This might explain why for instance the transition to independence is as difficult for young people in care, as past experiences of change have been so problematic, and fear of further can be disabling. Certainly Walker (2001) indicates “… transitions – accompanied by the disruption to routine and the need to interact with unfamiliar people – are precisely the types of situation that are often the most unsettling and stressful for these children.”
Some common notions about transition
The notions most commonly associated with transitions are:
Transitions are related to your age and stage of life, childhood to adolescence, adulthood to middle age, and middle age to old age.
Transitions are related to the continua or direction of the life path, dependent child to independent adult, from school to employment, from dependence and living at home to independence and living away from home.
Transitions are related to the gender expected role of the person, from daughter to wife, son to husband, husband/wife to widow or widower, from wife to mother, husband to father, from parent to grandparent.
Transitions are related to career and career path, from school to first job, from employment to unemployment, from unemployment to employments, from chosen career to career change or retraining, from out of education to college or university, and so on and so forth.
Within the domains noted above, transitional situations certainly occur. These situations will be recognizable as transitions by most of us having moved from childhood to adulthood, when living arrangements change and we become independent, when we encounter the roles and expectations of employment, or go from dependence to independence. Transitions are therefore perceived to be located within role or stage of life, a natural part of the progression of life path. Whilst I would not presume to argue against the above circumstances as being transitional situations in life, I would argue that these are not the only situations where transitional adjustment takes place.
Indeed, I would suggest that it is vitally important that as Child and Youth Care practitioners we understand not only the stages of life where one would expect transition but understand the mechanics of transitional adjustment in order that we can intervene with youth who are struggling in many areas of their life and development.
Childhood and adolescence
Many social commentators advise that the complexity and pace of modern life have created significantly more transitional situations than were expected of individuals in the past, (Bronfenbrenner, 1993, Moss & Petrie, 2002) none more so than for our youth. With the absence of good support systems, the breakdown of extended families, the growing propensity of single parent families, early entry into parenthood for young people who are troubled, the breakdown of neighbourhoods and communities and issues such as drug abuse and crime and internet crime against children, youth in society encounter difficulties not faced by generations of the past.
Childhood and adolescent issues present ever-increasing challenges for our politicians, police, teachers and social educators all of who have struggled to find consensus on how to work with youth in difficulty.
Brendtro (1992) indicates that western societies have struggled for congruence in their social policies about dealing with troubled young people for a long time. He advises “an examination of the history of childhood in Western society shows that negative attitudes towards difficult youth are deeply embedded in the cultural milieu.” Public policy has therefore not kept pace with the complexity of youth transitions in the modern era and consequently youth are stereotyped as either innocent and in need of rescue by our child protection systems, or villains in need of incarceration to protect wider society.
Negotiation of difficult and complex situations, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood take place for youth in circumstances where the traditional processes of the past, such as rites of passage, have been forgotten.
Taylor (2005) advises in her discussion about adolescent development, that, “adolescence involves a gradual transformation from child to adult. The precise nature of adolescence is dictated by the culture in which the transition is undertaken … in Western society, this process is protracted and multi-dimensional.” In more traditional societies Taylor reports “rites of passage ceremonies mark this transition in far more tangible ways.” In the past, societies have given more thought to the preparation of the young by providing social roadmaps that give guidance support and education that assists in the becoming of the future adult. Without transition ceremonies that mark transitional points in life youth can become lost and confused, leaving them struggling to understand where childhood ends and adulthood begins.
Barry (2001) when studying young people’s views of growing up found that childhood was seen as a state of mind, “a set of experiences influenced by incremental levels of competence, autonomy and independence, but bounded and ultimately defined by age.” She noted, however, that childhood was perceived by young people as a state of mind. For the young people involved in her research it was clear that being adult and feeling adult were two different concepts, dependent on life experience and attitudes. Barry observed further that there was “a blurring of the boundary between childhood and adulthood.” This blurring was evident in discussion with those children who had experienced undue responsibility as they found it hard to distinguish a difference between being a child and being older, as “they had no yardstick to compare it with.”
This is what makes age and stage definitions of transition limited in understanding transition as a phenomenon, as the phenomenon is complex and multidimensional and limited by understanding based purely on role and life stage benchmarks.
So how should we consider the phenomenon of transition, if it is not purely age and stage related, how do we define transition in a meaningful way?
Schlossberg (1995) defines transition as any event, or non-event (which I will come to later) that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions and roles. When children and youth are for instance admitted to our care programmes virtually all of the conditions noted by Schlossberg apply, and given the nature of the residential environment it is likely that young people will experience change and transition as a continuous factor during placement even if some of the changes that occur are positive.
I’m conscious at this juncture that I refer to change and transition together, as if they were synonymous with each other. Certainly change, transition and ultimately transformation as phenomena share many qualities; the source and outcome as Dilts (1998) observes. However these phenomena equally have identifiable characteristics of their own. Indeed, if we are to define transition meaningfully we need to understand the differences between these two concepts, as well as recognising their similarities, in order that their interchangeability can be challenged and practitioners can become transitionally aware.
Winfield (2002) clarifies some of these areas, advising that “change occurs when something new starts or when something old stops.” She quotes Bridges, (1991, 2000) who indicates that there are differences between change and the processes that lead to transformation, the end of the change process. Winfield asserts that there are two kinds of change, the coming apart of things, which she advises is the disintegration of the old, and the, coming together of things, the development of something new, a transformation from the old to the new. The in-between in this process is what Winfield refers to as the wilderness, the processes of transition, between the change and the transformation.
Paraphrasing Bridges, Winfield notes that, “change is not the same as transition; change refers to the situational: the new boss, the new site, the new team roles, or the new policy.” Transition however, is thought to be the psychological process people go through to come to terms with a new situation. Change therefore is external; transition is internal.
The internal world, a key to understanding transition
The internal world in which any transition takes place is a complex one, and to understand it requires consideration of how individuals make sense of their world and give meaning to the shaping of their experiences of it. Selder (1989) describes how the human being becomes disconcerted when a carefully constructed reality is disrupted. Selder uses the notion of identity constancy to define a person’s sense of self, disrupted by the emotional impact of transitional experiences, which creates disequilibrium with one’s normal coping mechanisms. Murray (1998) building on this notion notes that this disequilibrium creates feelings of anxiety, perceived incompetence, depression and anger.
As we know, some transitions encountered in life are gradual, some might be planned and navigated, some might be sudden and spontaneous; all however involve some form of challenge to the way we perceive truth about our world. Garfat (2002) indicates in his discussions about meaning construction “the way that we make meaning of experiences very much influences, and perhaps even determines, how we respond to them.” Transitional situations challenge individual assumptions about life, and if the transition encountered is of such seismic proportion to the precipitating events that created it, (the change in the external world), “it can shake the person’s global assumptions about life and possibly even shatter them” (Hartman, 2005).
Personal beliefs about the world involve beliefs about its justice, fairness, safety and predictability; they include also our beliefs about ourselves and about what is understandable and controllable in our world. However, when we encounter traumatic events in life such as bereavement, separation, family breakup, rejection or loss, we experience a disintegration of beliefs, values and security. Marris (1996) notes when examining bereavement, for instance, “our purposes and expectations come to be organized about particular relationships which are often crucial to the way we constitute the meaning of our lives. When we lose such a relationship, the whole structure of meaning centered upon it, disintegrates.”
Traumatic transition therefore challenges the very belief systems that allow people to make sense of the world, and “wound both the self and the sense of self” (Urban, 2003). These emotional wounds take time to heal and in that time, reactions such as avoidance, denial, delay, procrastination and ambivalence take place. If the individual is subjected to a relentless stream of multiple adversities as Newman (2002) advises, “negative consequences are highly likely to follow.”
Negative consequences in the internal world impact on the individual’s ability to understand what is happening, and make sense of why events are happening in this way, all crucial if the person is to move beyond being stuck. However if further transitions are taking place simultaneously then the person may encounter such intense feelings of uncertainty and hesitancy that they encounter transitional crisis (Williams, 1999). Sometimes also referred to as transitional block, this emotional barrier suspends decision making by blocking our ability to focus, leaving some people entering the transition and never leaving, “staying constantly in chaos – or retreating into shock” (Hartman, 2005).
Schlossberg’s transition model
Transitional experiences are highly subjective. Schlossberg (1995) goes beyond these subjective parameters and seeks to develop understanding of the factors that influence an individual’s ability to cope with transition. Schlossberg developed these factors into a means of assessing how people adjust to transitional situations, which have become known as “the Four S’s assessment model.”
Situation (including, the trigger for the transition, the timing, the duration, the control over the event(s), the concurrent stress involved and any role changes involved).
Self (personal and demographic situations which include gender, stage of life, health, ethnicity and age, ego development, outlook on life, optimism, self efficacy, commitment and personal values).
Support (social support in life, intimate relationships, family situation, and networks of friends, institutions and communities).
Strategies (responses that change a situation, responses that control the meaning of the problem, and responses that manage the stress in the aftermath of the change and transition).
Schlossberg’s “four S’s” transition assessment model, seeks to determine the “assets and liabilities” of an individual, viewing the above factors as determinants on how well someone copes with transitional situations. Schlossberg defines transition as: any event or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions or roles. She therefore advises that transitional experiences should be understood within the following contexts:
Anticipated transition – transitions that occur predictably
Unanticipated transition – transitions that are not predictable
Non events – transitions that are expected and do not occur, individual aspirations that are not fulfilled
Role of perception – a transition only exists if it is defined by the individual experiencing it
Context – referring to the individual’s relationship to the transition
Impact – determined by the degree to which the transition alters the daily life of the individual
Transition grief and loss
Young people experiencing continuous change without periods of recovery may come to accept change and rejection as normal, so it is imperative that residential practitioners tune into young people going through transitional crisis. Tuning in is however a hard process as many of the factors that are indicative of transitional crisis are also associated with grief reactions. Take for instance, the processes traditionally associated with grief and loss. The accepted grief processes include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Anxiety, Sadness, Disorientation, Depression, Integration and Acceptance. (Kubler-Ross, 1968; Jewett, 1992; Marris, 1996)
All of the above grief processes are indicative of adjustment to loss in situations, and many of the processes involved with transition share similar characteristics to coping with loss. In his discussions about transition (Bridges, 2000) advises that many of the processes navigated in transitional experiences bear a striking resemblance to the processes encountered in grief resolution. In his change and transition curve, he notes that individuals experience, shock, denial, euphoria, pining, anger, searching, guilt, depression, taking stock, reviewing, acknowledgement of situation and finally an integration of experience. Yet, a link between transition and loss should not seem far-fetched. Rodgers (1989) advises that there can be overlap in various social phenomena as concepts are sometimes interrelated. Consequently, concepts in the phenomenon of transition are not exclusive to any one context, but have shared attributes with many life events.
McElwee (2003) notes “loss takes many forms for a child; it could be the loss of freedom coming into a social care environment in the first instance; it could be the loss of familiarity with the home environment to a new environment; it could be the loss of siblings in the home to a new group of peers; the loss of personal possessions and the like.” It is therefore not uncommon for young people in residential child care environments to have suffered compounded loss and subsequent grief, and the losses they have encountered will impact on how they cope with the transitional situations they encounter in residence. Loss, particularly coupled with transition, is often the common currency for those in care.
Transitional objects to transitional space
A new worker once exclaimed with incredulity, whilst on shift with other child care workers, that a fifteen-year-old young man had a “teddy bear.” The comment was not made to mock the youth but was made in reference to the perceived level of maturity of the youngster by that member of staff. The staff member did not know it at the time but as she started to form relationship with the youth, she began to understand that this teddy bear had been through virtually the child’s whole life with him. In good times and in bad, this teddy had made its journey jointly with this youngster, and its significance to the youth was enormous.
Later in supervision, discussions about the youth began exploring the importance of this object in the transitions this child was encountering. He was struggling at school, struggling with whether he should try to contact his dad after several years of being estranged, and struggling with his mother’s illness. The teddy bear was clearly a transitional object, which linked his past to the present, to his father and siblings and in particular his mother. The bear kept him connected to family even when they were apart. The bear was never seen in the daylight, it was kept in the youth’s private space. It was brought out at night, cuddled and cherished, and viewed as a comfort when distressed.
Winnicott (1971) famously noted, “Transitional objects bridge the gap between the child’s inner world and their outer world.” For this youth, this tatty teddy certainly did that. Winnicott’s initial use of the idea of transitional objects was in the field of infant psychology, and it is most commonly associated with the use of “teddy bears or security blanket’s.” Transitional objects are what Winnicott (1991) referred to as objects in the third state, that the transitional object was neither the outside nor the inside; it was something on its own that could be manipulated by the child but had its own existence.
Lefebvre (1974) also refers to notions that the transitional object is a “relay point” in sensorysensual space, “an object which is visually readable but whose primary function is to make a link to another object, space or time” (Ranson, 2002). Hartman (2005) advises that transitional objects “allow the child safe and supported space within which to move from a purely subjective experience to one in which there is a clear distinction between me and other. The transitional object enjoys a special in-between status, neither me nor other but somehow both.”
It may be, therefore, that those transitional objects are among the most powerful symbols in children’s lives that keep them connected and attached when not in direct contact with a loved person. It might also be significant for care practitioners to understand the significance of transitional objects in the creation of transitional space between one transition and another, as a transitional object may be able to provide the emotional anchors necessary to help navigate the present transition a young person is trying to cope with.
The story of Catherine
Catherine’s story is not an uncommon one. Catherine entered the care system aged 10 years, at the onset of her adolescence. Her history prior to full time care had involved significant disruption to her life, with parental acrimony, separation and divorce. During periods of crisis in her life for her parents, Catherine and her sisters would be bundled between the alternate homes of her separated parents. During this period her parents would indulge in being the “good parent” for Catherine, the one who was able to take care of her whilst the other couldn’t. This was only to be confused further when placement with the caring parent broke down and Catherine was rejected again. Despite social work support and attempts to increase the parental understanding, Catherine continued to have intermittent periods of care with each of her parents, and increasing respite periods of substitute family care.
By the time Catherine attained her 10th birthday she had become angry and confused, she was failing in her education and was confrontational with adults in authority. By her 11th birthday, she had had four foster care placements and was moving towards residential placement. I encountered Catherine when she was 15 years old, and in the intervening years Catherine had had a stream of placement breakdowns, failures in mainstream schools, placement in residential schooling facilities, and incarceration in several of Scotland’s secure treatment facilities.
By that time Catherine was engaging in various high-risk behaviours, sexually active, confrontational, acting out criminally and taking drugs. She absconded regularly from whatever care facility she was placed in. She lacked connection and belonging, and she felt totally alone. Initially I worked with Catherine for a short period. Placed in our care, she did what she had done with every other placement – she absconded. The agencies involved with her life, reacted with similar predictability, they locked her up “for her own safety.” However on this occasion it was different. On this occasion, despite her admission to secure accommodation, a colleague and I visited her, not to lecture her, but to try and understand her.
We visited weekly from that point and over the intervening six weeks engaged her in work that helped her to disentangle her life. Catherine was able to talk through her life experience and importantly tried to make sense of the moves she had experienced, and the distance she felt from her family and siblings, emotionally and physically. She talked about not belonging anywhere, and mentioned that in the previous two years she had encountered 28 changes – changes of school, changes of foster placements, changes of residential schools, and residential homes, of custodial facilities visited, discharged and revisited again.
Catherine indicated that in many placements, she encountered staff who said that they wanted to care for her, but felt that “these were the just usual statements” from people who wouldn’t stick around and she would have to move again to the next placement. Her experience proved her right, and she had to make new relationships over and over again. At nights, Catherine explained that she could not sleep, as she would think about her life and what she had lost in it. She indicated that she was expected to go to school but could not focus on her work. She said that she wished that life could just stand still for a while.
As Catherine had moved around she indicated that she lost contact with family, lost relationship with her siblings and at one stage even forgot what her sister looked like. She asked in session “when you lose things like that, your family, how are you supposed to be able to focus on other things, other decisions that you are supposed to make? You end up not making plans, and just live for the moment.”
Catherine’s story really isn’t that remarkable. It is a testament to the experience of so many of the youth we encounter in residential practice.
The good thing in this instance was that we were able to make enough connection with her, and she was able to make sense of her past transitions, and in combination we were able to facilitate a positive transition out of the custodial setting to placement in our organization. We prepared staff for her coming and informed them about Catherine’s life and life dilemmas. We had the luxury of a staff group willing to claim Catherine and to take some of the risks with her in making relationships, not being rigidly caught up in the rules. Our goal became focused on helping Catherine feel safe and loved, but also that she was safe enough in the outside world and that the system was threatened by the risks that she still took for a while. We made sure that her transition points would be planned, e.g., school holidays, returns to school, preparation for shift changes so that allowed Catherine to know who was going to be on duty.
Catherine stayed with us for a full year. As she made the transition towards independence staff gave much support to her within the parameters she could accept, encouraging her, cajoling her, sometimes carrying her through experiences that she pretended she could cope with but couldn’t. By the time of her departure she had done some reconnection with her siblings and family. We remained there for Catherine, and despite some tough times, she was able to make it. Catherine now has a baby and an older partner, but has remained connected and supported. She visits us frequently, checking in that we are still there and still has regular contact with her keyworker.
In order to provide the best opportunities for children with special emotional needs and behavioural challenges, our Child and Youth Care establishments must become more aware of the impact transitional experiences have on the young people we look after. We must remember that most children who are placed in residential programmes enter placement at times of crisis, when acute change is happening in their lives. At these times there are likely to be substantial feelings, ranging through anxiety and instability to insecurity and deep-seated trauma. Adapting to new situations, new surroundings, disruption of normal routine and interacting with new people are significant stressors for these young people which trigger coping behaviours brought from the individual’s past.
Campbell (1973, as cited in Hartman & Zimberoff, 2005) refers to transitions in the perspective of it being a “hero’s journey.” a metaphor from Greek mythology in which in the course of becoming the hero makes a pilgrimage which involves separation, a departure, an initiation and a return or a rebirth. As described by Zimberoff, “one departs from home, from the familiar or the everyday, the consciousness shared by the community. There comes a time for leaving, when the individual has prepared and is ready. Then before receiving the initiation, he/she must cross the first threshold, descending into the darkness.” Campbell’s metaphor is indicative of a moving from a past reality to something new, beyond what is known.
Transitioning from a past reality to a present reality is a central theme in the Life Transition theory of Selder (1989) which advises that the purpose of any life transition is to “build a bridge from the disrupted reality to one of the possible realities that can be created.” Williams (1999) reminds us that “multiple transitions can produce a cumulative deterioration in well-being if the individual is unable to recover before another change (and subsequent transition) occurs.” Residential establishments should seek therefore to create environments that sooth and calm these crisis situations allowing the youth emotional space to recover before encountering further transitions. In order to do so, our environments must become more predictable without being institutional, with rhythms, rituals and routines (Maier, 1979) that seek to establish stability and continuity, and emotional safety (Jackson and Martin, 1999). Indeed, Maier (1979) indicates that rituals have emotional significance particularly at times of transition.
We also need to ensure that our establishments provide training for staff to allow for a deeper understanding of the importance of transitional awareness. In doing so workers will be in the best position possible to reflect on the likely impact of a child’s past transitional experiences and respond to the current transitional needs of the youth in residence. Maier, (1981) notes “it is inherent in the contemporary scene that each child care worker serves as a personalised transition worker – a person facilitating children’s transitions from one life situation to another.”
Wyn (2000) advises “the complexity and unpredictability of the life experiences of young people points to a need to re-examine established understandings of youth transitions.” Therefore traditional, linear, uni-dimensional models based on age or identity (Erikson, 1968) such as school to work transition is considered inadequate “as they fail to capture the complexities of youth transitions in the modern era.” Such a re-examination must take us beyond understanding transition as purely age and stage related and will require us to think laterally about the transitioning experiences of youth, who may be locked in indecision and procrastination for reasons of their past experience rather than resistance to the care programme. We need to remember that patterns laid down over the lifetime of the youth will be slow to change, and our environments need to be patient and persistent.
Research regarding the transitional experiences of infants into primary education from pre-school environments, points us towards understanding that early experiences of transition have an impact on how future transitions will be negotiated.
Dockett (1999) suggests for instance “the way school transition is managed sets the stage not only for children’s success at school, but also “how future transitions will be managed.” Indeed (Hartman, 2005) notes that “ ... in general, the earlier (in life) when a defining moment of transition occurs, the deeper is the imprint as prototype for the ensuing lifespan.”
Improving the outcomes for youth in transition must be a priority in our interventions. Child care environments which are transitionally aware and responsive are also more likely to be sensitive to the other needs of children in difficulty, in areas such as attachment reparation, emotional growth and development.
Nurturing stable environments are also more likely to provide for such young people the conditions that allow for relationship building and reflection.
Therefore, the challenges associated with the transitional understanding of youth in our settings maybe crucial areas for development in our practice over the coming years, and how we organize our programmes to take account of youth transitioning will be a determinant factor in the success or failure of the placement. As transitional understanding grows, however, what is becoming clear is that we need to anticipate and prepare youth for transitions in advance, and our programmes must build in and build on what (Walker, 2001) refers to as “whatever remains stable” in the lives of youth in our programmes.
We should seek to identify the supports that have worked for the young person in the past in order to develop the resilience qualities of the child through structured direct work, and by doing so create a secure base (Gilligan, 1997) for the young person which helps to develop their sense of belonging and security. We also need to remind ourselves of Brendtro’s (1992) notion of the “psychological orphan” when considering the impact on young people of ill thought-out placement changes for youth. Brendtro told the story of Richard Cardinal, a Canadian youth who had been in an endless stream of placements, shunted with seeming indifference to the pain of enforced change.
The quote below should remind us of what these events mean to youth.
“His short life would teach much about the indifference of people as he spent 13 years being shunted to a seemingly endless string of homes, schools, youth shelters and treatment facilities. Each time he was moved was like pulling a piece of used tape from a wall and trying to fasten it again. Before long he seemed to have lost all ability to build close attachments with adults in his life.”
So, when we encounter youth who find great difficulty in settling to bed at night or who struggle to “keep with the programme” or who have great difficulty returning to school after vacation or have problems in changes of routine or support, right down to changes of staff on our shift rotas or are stuck in the making of choices or decisions which we consider easy, spare a thought for their past transitional experiences. The will better place us in helping youngsters gain insight into their thoughts and actions, and move forward at a pace they can cope with.
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