Those who work with youth in foster care often talk about transitioning to an independent adulthood. But is any successful adult really independent?
We have our friends, our study groups, our churches, our book clubs, our professional connections and many other informal sources of social support. What would adulthood look like without these connections? Not very successful.
If we accept that one of the keys to successful adulthood is social interdependency – that is, being embedded within social networks that help informally support us – than we must accept that one of the tasks a teen must do to transition to adulthood is to earn the social capital that these networks are made of.
What is social capital?
According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, social capital is the value that’s created by investing in relationships with others. Social capital reflects the bonds and trust created by nurturing the connections between people.
It’s not really a revelation that relationships are important. But here’s why they’re vital to youth aging out of foster care.
Positive, nurturing relationships and social capital are a powerful remedy for something most youth in care have in common – trauma. While there’s been a great deal of study into how trauma affects early childhood development, we’re just learning how the mistrust and isolation caused by childhood trauma can permanently derail adult development if not dealt with in adolescence.
The adolescent brain offers a window of developmental opportunity matched only by that seen in the first five years of neurological development. There is physical rewiring happening in the brain, as hormone levels shift. From the outside, one major way we can help determine where that wiring lands is through positive stable relationships. Those experiences that build social capital also change the brain permanently – wiring it for trust, for empathy, for those skills that make it possible to live as an interdependent adult.
Connected by 25
Most scientists agree that 25 is the age at which the brain has reached full maturity. The neural connections have been set and the foundation has been laid. In the years between 18 and 25, it’s critical that youth be working to be embedded in those social networks that will support them through adulthood. Being “connected by 25” makes work success, romance, friendships, hobbies and educational achievement possible.
If youth do not make these critical connections by age 25? There’s isolation. Higher likelihood of criminal activity. Less incentive to achieve. Fear. Mistrust. A life outside the mainstream of successful adults.
How can we help?
Those working with youth will want to keep in mind that the adolescent brain is still in a state of high development. How that development plays out will be largely based on the quality of relationships in the youth’s life. The relationship with social workers, family members, friends and other adults in the youth’s life all have an impact. When designing transition plan for youth aging out, remember to:
- Acknowledgeocial capital as a developmental requirement for those aging out of care
- Design and recommend services to 18-25 year-olds that focus on establishing and enhancing critical relationships
- Emphasize the establishment of permanent, positive adult relationships for youth – relationships without an expiration date