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These Tools Help Coach College Youth Aged Out of Foster Care to Develop Relationships

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Some youth have experienced multiple relationship changes throughout their adolescent years, which compounds any already existing challenges related to ambiguous loss, grief, attachment injuries and developmental gaps related to separation from their birth families. Moreover, youth who age out of foster care often live with some degree of trauma, which is stored in the nooks and crannies of implicit memory and the reflexive nervous system, or outside of conscious control. All these conditions bring unique challenges to relationship development.

Although trauma is typically unwelcomed (both by youth and people relating to them), it is most helpful to view it not as a problem but as an adaptation to problematic events and circumstances. Children raised in abusive, neglectful or otherwise violent conditions adapt to survive. Much of the adaptation is unconscious and focused on survival.

For example, the nervous system adjusts to stay “on alert” to the unpredictable moods of a caregiver so as to minimize physical abuse; the digestive system recalibrates so that hunger is not felt when food provisions run out; or an environment mute to encouragement, praise, play and supportive communication shapes the social engagement system to be suspicious of compliments.

Engaging, establishing and maintaining relationships with youth who live with trauma and without continuous nurturing relationships from adult caregivers is not a straightforward process. The unwieldy path of untangling trauma, especially complex trauma, is a difficult road that cannot be forced or rushed. The human body organizes in response to trauma in favor of self-protection; that is, keeping oneself safe from harm at all costs, including the price of relationships with other people.

While there is no guidebook, there are several helpful resources to prepare supportive adults (who may or may not have professional training) in establishing and maintaining relationships with youth who age out of foster care. For example, the “Child Development and Trauma Guide” highlights indicators of how trauma manifests and impacts children and youth at different stages of development. The guide also provides general tips on how to respond to youth who exhibit trauma symptoms. The “Transformational relationships for youth success” report reveals characteristics of supportive adults who help youth thrive, such as individuals who consistently show up for youth during the highs and lows, and challenge them to be a better version of themselves without judging them. Finally, “Relationships First: Creating Connections That Help Young People Thrive” provides a developmental framework and a wide variety of tips to creating strong relationships with youth.