Issues in the Transition to Adulthood from Substitute Care

This article presents highlights of a presentation that took place in June of 2008 at the FICE Congress in Helsinki, Finland. The presentation integrated information from diverse sources, with the goal of informing intervention with youth leaving care to live on their own. This brief summary draws on: developmental theory, recent research findings regarding normative transitions to adulthood, literature on termination processes in residential placement, and outcome research that examines the adjustment of young people who have aged out of substitute care.Over the last decade, it has been observed that young people in the industrialized world are taking longer to grow up. The milestones that have traditionally signaled the attainment of adult status (leaving home, achieving financial independence, marriage and parenthood) seem to be established later than ever (Furstenberg, Rumbaut & Settersen, 2006). Individuals in their twenties commonly live with their parents, and those who leave, often return more than once before permanently launching themselves in their late 20s or even their early 30s.

Emerging Adulthood

These developments have been observed so consistently over the last decade in North America and in Europe that Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist from Clark University in Massachusetts, proposed that a new life stage be added (Arnett, 1998). He coined the term Emerging Adulthood for this period, which lasts from the late teens until at least the mid-twenties (approximately 18 to 26).

Dr. Arnett explained that there are concerns and experiences that are unique to the transition to adulthood, and Emerging Adults are engaged in processes that set them apart from adolescents and young adults, involving identity exploration in relation to work and relationships. While some aspects of this stage were previously subsumed in theories of adolescence, adolescent experimentation must give way to more focused exploration in Emerging Adulthood that results in the establishment of a stable, identity-based lifestyle (Arnett, 2007).

Dr. Arnett’s research has indicated that most twenty-somethings have mixed feelings about reaching adulthood. The achievement of adult responsibilities is a gradual process, which optimally involves protracted periods of practicing at independence with family standing by to provide a safety net. If all goes well, an individual can achieve an increasing sense of well-being through the Emerging Adult years.

Problems in Transition for Youth in Care

There is a significant proportion of Emerging Adults, however, whose transition to adulthood is compromised by a lack of internal and external resources. It is estimated that 5 to 7% of all youth in North America will encounter serious difficulties in development in Emerging Adulthood (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan & Ruth, 2005). Long term study of young people who falter and fail in their twenties suggests that their problems persist and have a negative impact on adult adjustment.

A group that faces enormous obstacles in Emerging Adulthood is youth leaving the care of the public system. These are young people who have attained the age of majority (18 in most parts of Canada, 21 in the U.S.A.), in substitute care, and have spent months or years in foster care or residential programs.

Most child welfare practice in North America focuses on family reinsertion as the best possible outcome when children are placed. Intensive intervention efforts are directed at improving family functioning so that young people can grow up at home. In reality, however, a sizeable proportion of youth in care can never return to their families, and have no choice but to move out on their own when their placement ends because of their age.

Estimates from 2001 suggest that there are 60,000 young people in care every year in Canada, 6,000 of who leave to live on their own (Flynn, 2003). In the U.S.A., out of the approximately 542,000 youth in care, 20,000 young adults will exit for independent living annually (Osgood et al., 2005).

Forced Independence

These youth, who were traumatized early on by adverse conditions, separated from their families, and cared for by a public system, are then expected to adjust to the abrupt withdrawal of services and the necessity of taking on adult responsibilities. They do so as a default option, because efforts at family reunification have failed. In many instances, there has been no advanced planning for preparing a young person to live on their own, and they have little or no say in the process.

Outcome studies indicate that North American youth leaving care in Emerging Adulthood do not fare well as adults (Tweddle, 2007). They are over-represented among the homeless, in prisons, and on adult psychiatric wards. Many do not finish high school and struggle chronically with unemployment and underemployment. Few have ongoing emotional or financial support from family. They are forced to live independently at a much younger age than other young people, almost ten years earlier given current statistics on home leaving. Despite their relatively young age, they not only face the need to adapt to an adult lifestyle, they also must adjust to the termination of care.

Both leaving care and moving out on one’s own for the first time are experiences fraught with ambivalence that impose losses on the individual and stimulate mourning. Psychodynamic theories stress that in the normative movement towards adult independence, there is a need to realign relationships with significant others and give up dependency (Balk, 1995). This is often seen as one of the most important and painful processes of the human lifespan.

However, positive relationships that promote opportunities for progressive experimentation are needed, to provide what Arnett has referred to as a safety net (Arnett, 2007). This has also been labeled as the process of “refueling”, when young people can benefit from the chance to alternate attempts at autonomous functioning with periods of protection and care by adults.

Youth leaving care have few opportunities to refuel. They suffer from the absence of secure attachments and their attempts at autonomy are infused with fear and self-doubt. To make matters worse, leaving care restimulates unresolved issues related placement, forcing the individual to relive early losses (Gordy-Levine, 1990). In many cases, this creates a possibility for regression and increased acting out, precisely at a time when expectations for mature behavior may be greatest.

The Need for Support

There is increasing recognition in North America of the importance of specialized support for youth leaving care, but there are huge variations in what is provided in different states and provinces, in part because the nature of this transition is poorly understood. Policies and programs must change to reflect the complexity, volatility and protracted nature of Emerging Adulthood, especially for this disadvantaged group.

Results of ten years of qualitative research by this author suggests that most substitute care resources are not currently designed to be flexible enough to allow for a gradual transition, which in turn exacerbates the challenges of transitioning to adulthood (Mann-Feder & White, 2004).

Not only do we offer little opportunity for experimentation, successive attempts at leaving, or refueling, we do little to assist young people in addressing the difficult feelings associated with the transition from care to adulthood. Especially critical is the provision of consistent, supportive relationships with adults who can adopt a non-punitive approach and normalize the expression of feelings. The mourning process stimulated by leaving care can be extremely painful for both young people and their workers, but avoiding these issues can create greater difficulty in the long run.

Agency policies and procedures that empower young people to participate actively in decision making in relation to their future are also a critical ingredient in preparing them for adult life. We need to redesign our programs, taking recent findings into account, so that youth in care can benefit from the possibilities inherent in Emerging Adulthood, as a time for reworking identity issues in moving forward into a brighter future.

Varda R. Mann-Feder, D.Ed, is Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Human Sciences, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Arnett, J.J. (2000) Emerging Adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the 20s. American Psychologist, 55, 469-480.

Arnett, J. J. (2007) Aging out of care: Towards realizing the possibilities of Emerging Adulthood. New Directions in Youth Development, 113, 151-162.

Flynn, R. (2003) Resilience in transitions from out of home care in Canada: A prospective longitudinal study. Unpublished manuscript.

Gordy-Levine, T. A time to mourn again. In Maluccio, A.N., Krieger, R. & Pine. B.A. Eds. Preparing adolescents for life after foster care. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America.

Mann-Feder, V. & White, T. (2004) Facilitating the transition from care to independent living: Reflections from a program of research. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 6(4), 198-203.

Osgood, D., Foster, E., Flanagan. & Ruth, C. (2005) Why focus on the transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations. In Osgood, D., Foster, E., Flanagan. & Ruth. (Eds.) On your own without a net: The transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations, pp. 1-26. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tweddle, A. (2007) Youth leaving care: How do they fare? New Directions in Youth Development, 113, 15-32.

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