The Meaning of Home. By Christina A. Sieber, M.A.

 The word ‘Home’ means many things to different people.  It can mean security and safety to some people, and may mean uncertainty to others.  Certainly for the young people we care for the word ‘Home’ may have a very different ‘meaning’ and ‘feeling’ than to you or I.  In Ireland the notion and word ‘Home’ was traditionally linked and defined in the Irish Constitution with the family based in marriage.  Families in modern Ireland have changed over time and the notion of a family based in marriage is now argued to be outdated.  There are many families of different compositions such as single parent families, same sex families, families where parents are separated or divorced and also families where parents have remarried or have new partners.

This article seeks to explore the subject of home and what it means for people and the young people we care for. In addition it attempts to explain how people view ‘Home’ and whether it is people or the building that is important when talking of ‘Home’.

However the question still remains – what is Home and what does it mean to people? ‘Home’ can be a place of attachment, which is defined as ’a set of feelings about a geographic location that emotionally binds a person to that place as a function of its role as a setting for experience’ (Rubinstein & Parmelee, 1992).  It is also a place where you should feel secure and protected (Allan and Crowe 1989, Sibley 1995, and Valentine 2001 in Ursin, 2011) It has been defined as ‘a space loaded with meanings’ (Ahmet, 2013 in Hamzah and Adnan, 2016 pg. 307) and as ‘a lived space with a complex range of symbolic meanings’ (Steward, 2000 in Hamzah and Adnan, 2016 pg. 307) and ‘while physical space is important … the dominant theme across literature is the emotional, psychological and social significance and feeling of home.’ (Parsell, 2012 pg. 163).

When referring to young people, the notion of ‘Home’ may mean their house, their parents or family, their school and/or the areas around their house where they hang out with friends. ‘Children’s places’ are located mainly in and around the areas where children live (Rasmussen, 2004).  It is the place where young people are familiar, feel like they belong, ‘a strong source of identity’ (Sommerville 1992, Blunt and Dowling 2006 cited in Ursin, 2001 pg. 223) and where they have a sense of security such as their ‘secure base’.  For example, for a young person ‘Home’ can mean the comfort of their bedroom and it can be associated with their parents/caregivers and extended family.  It can also mean being part of a community and school and a circle of friends. ’Home is used to signify feelings of security and comfort … home as a metaphor for experiences of joy, protection, comfort and belonging in places’ (Moore, 2000 in Manzo, 2003, p. 49).  For other young people ‘Home’ can mean a chaotic life, a life of uncertainty, and a fear and anxiety of what may come next ‘Home may not be a refuge, but a place of violence’ (Ahrentxen, 1992, in Manzo, 2003, p. 51)

So, ‘Home’ can mean many things to many different people, however the underlying principle is that ‘Home’ should be a familiar territory and a place of identity.  Rubenstein and Parmalee (1992) describe this interactive relationship between one’s home and one’s personal identity as an attachment to place which develops most directly from life experiences and associated notions of what has been important in one’s life and who one is in the world. So keeping in mind that the underlying principle is that ‘Home’ is familiar territory and a place of identity, any move from home which a young person makes can cause uncertainty and thus stress in the young person’s life (Grant et al., 2003).  No matter how much preparation goes into the move it will be stressful.

A study by Moxnes (2003) on children of divorcing parents found that over just a third of young people had to leave their old home and there were significant differences between the young people who moved and those who did not move.  It found that, on average, the young people who changed residence showed signs of negative development, for example social isolation more often, and signs of positive development such as mixing with new peers less often than those who continued to live in their pre-divorce home. However, many young people move house with their parents and do not experience any negative effects of the move, indicating that the impact of a move is complex with many factors requiring consideration and one would have to question is ‘Home’ about people or buildings.

A young person’s perception of ‘home’ and what this means, the security and belonging associated with ‘home’ can be diminished with many moves ‘people without a lived space will have no identities and tend to feel unsafe’ (Parsell, 2012 in Hamzah and Adnan, 2016 pg. 308). Unfortunately, for so many of the many young people we care for, their lives are littered with moves.  For some it is a movement of placement location, placement breakdown, a foster carer becoming ill or unable to cope and for others it can be for such reasons as ‘a children’s home being closed down due to budgetary cuts or policy changes, or a placement is considered unsuitable because possible risks of maltreatment have emerged.  Such moves typically have many unintended consequences in terms of further losses of relationships with carers, friends, teachers and other concerned adults’ (Gilligan, 2000, p.142).

On a daily basis the young people we care for struggle with being away from home, their families and their familiar surroundings.  Their struggle is despite the situation that they have come from. On many occasions during my time working in a long term therapeutic residential unit the topic of what ‘Home’ means has been spoken about and raised both by the young people living in the unit and also by the social care team entrusted in working with them.  The significance of ‘Home’ has always to be to the forefront of our minds when working and sharing a ‘home’ with young people.   This word and the meaning behind it for different people caused many discussions, debates and at times arguments.

The term ‘Home’ means many things to different people and quite often this term is a reflection on the upbringing and type of childhood one has experience of.  While we can all identify with the term ‘Home’, and the physical structure of a home is a part of our everyday lives, we do not pay much attention to what ‘Home’ truly means to the individuals involved be it infants, young people or adults.  The idea of ‘Home’ is more often than not taken for granted. And for those of us that are lucky the notion of ‘Home’ is thought of in a very positive light.

‘Home’ for most of us is made up of simple things that organise our day.  The acts of eating together, sharing a space and our possessions, sleeping and spending time together all constitutes what we consider a home.  Many different types of structures and buildings over time have constituted what we consider to be a home, from mud huts to igloo’s and tree houses, to the most sophisticated of castles and houses. A few years ago a homeless man slept outside a community hall next door to the residential unit I work in.  He slept there for a number of weeks and during this time he claimed the space I would argue as his ‘Home’.  Over the course of the weeks that he stayed there he put up pictures on the walls and created a space which he identified as ‘Home’.

However even though there are countless types of houses and ‘Homes’ certain elements are present through all. Homes or a ‘Home’ are created primarily for shelter.  ‘Attempts to make sense of the relationship between the dwelling space and its occupants often conclude that the physical needs to be considered alongside the social, psychological and emotive aspects of the dwelling place.’  Hamzah and Adnan, (2016, pg. 305)  The emotional element of a ‘Home’ comes when people live there, when possessions take up residence and when traditions are linked to rooms in ‘Homes’ i.e. Christmas trees in sitting rooms, the garden, the kitchen.

Many of the things that have meaning in our lives are connected with the notion or feeling we have about ‘Home’.  This is where the young people we care for struggle, as at times their feeling or memory of home can be both positive and negative and can impinge on them at the most unpredictable times through a memory, or through something as simple as a smell. ‘Home is located cognitively in memories and narrations, and in everyday social interaction.’ Ursin (2011, pg. 223). To a young person in our care the term ‘Home’ can take on a whole other significance.

To some young people the building one lives in is very important as is what they associate as ‘home’.  This is especially difficult for young people leaving care as more often than not when they leave care they do not return to their ‘Home’ to visit and if they do they cannot return to spend extended periods of time there  i.e. overnights, Christmas etc. even in times of crisis.  A few years ago our unit undertook serious renovations and we as group, young people and staff had to move out of our usual residence and relocate to another house a short distance away for a number of months.  During this time we observed the importance that the actual building held for the young people in our care.  They spoke on numerous occasions about missing the house, the garden, the kitchen, bedrooms etc.  We also spent Christmas in our temporary residence and again missing the old house was spoken about greatly and about how Christmas was just not the same.  Nothing else had changed, the staff team, management, school placements etc. remained the same … only the building was different.  All of the young people stated that the new building was fine, and for one young person was closer to his school however they all spoke of wanting and looking forward to going home!

One young person in particular found being away from the old house very difficult so any opportunity we had, we would visit the old house to see what progress was being made. When the day finally came to move back I can only describe the mood of the young people and staff as joy and relief.  All were back within the walls of the old building albeit a revamped one!!!! Not being at home created an opportunity for the young people to process what home meant for them; albeit with the prospect of a triumphant return at the end of it.

To others the term ‘Home ‘ is associated with the people you are surrounded by and more often than not these young people see their parental home as their ‘Home’ first and foremost.  Sean (8) and his sister Amy (4) came into care due to neglect, physical abuse and the sexual abuse of Amy at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.  Their home life was described as one of ‘dirty and unkempt surroundings, cold and never enough to eat’, and the children were described as out of control, running the streets.  When Sean and Amy initially entered the care system they were placed with a foster family who subsequently stated they couldn’t care for Sean any longer, as he was ‘wild and out of control’.  A placement was sought for both of the children to keep them together but none was found and so Sean moved to a long-term residential unit and Amy stayed with the foster family.  Sean’s carers in the residential unit reported that while he settled in the unit he was quite unpredictable, hoarded food and liked to sleep in a cold room with the windows open at night.  Amy’s foster parents reported that Amy was quite fearful initially after Sean left however settled into the routine of the house well and was starting to trust them.  They also reported that like Sean she liked her room to be cold at night, and said it was to feel comfy in bed.  Over the years Sean moved many times from one residential unit to the next always stating he wanted to go ‘Home’ to his mother, while Amy remained with her foster family, made friends and integrated into the community.  Amy looked forward to her visits with her mum and Sean but talked of being at ‘Home’ with her new family. Maybe what is important here are the attachment patterns that Amy and Sean display and how Amy it seems can attach to people and a building whereas Sean seems to find this more difficult?  Amy’s ability to attach has afforded her some long term stability.

In conclusion, the young people we care for struggle with what ‘Home’ means to them, where they call ‘Home’; feeling torn between their parental home and the ‘Home’ they now live in.

The term ‘Home’ can mean different things and each person’s experience of ‘Home’ and family life will influence this greatly.  ‘Home’ and our perceptions of ‘Home’ are so important in everyday life.  For young people who have experienced and felt many different types of homes this is even truer.  The meaning of ‘Home’ and the fact that we work in young people’s homes is one that is missed by many of us who just consider that we are going to work. The idea perhaps that we have to not ‘tiptoe’ but be very respectful; like you would in anybody’s home; is a value that we have to always be mindful of in our practice.

 May your walls know Joy,

May each room hold laughter,

And may every window

Open to great possibility.

 Mary Ann Radmacher-Hershey



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