BREAKDOWN in family relationships is consistently identified as the single biggest cause of homelessness in government, voluntary sector and academic research. It affects young and old alike but it can have a particularly damaging impact on adolescents going through an already challenging time in their lives.
Relationships between youngsters and their parents come under strain for a variety of reasons. There may not be enough money, enough time or enough energy to resolve difficulties and in many cases this can lead to young people leaving home. Recent research from The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) reveals that 25 per cent of young people consider leaving home at least once a month because of family disagreements. When young people leave home they are particularly vulnerable and at risk from a wide range of negative influences. Substance misuse and antisocial behaviour are common. 50 per cent of respondents to the SCCR survey felt that they would like someone to talk to or help them sort out disagreements at home. This is nothing short of a national crisis – albeit one played out behind closed doors.
The SCCR research cites mediation as the most effective way of resolving these family disputes. Mediation offers people who are having trouble getting along the opportunity to meet with an independent, professionally trained third person who will help them to talk things through and try to work out a way to improve the situation. It may seem strange to think about needing help to talk, but when conflict escalates people stop “hearing” what the other person has to say.
This leads to frustration and people making assumptions about each other. Things can quickly get out of control and become very distressing.
Mediation for young people and their families has been available through Relationships Scotland’s national network of family mediation services for years. Relationships Scotland’s professionally trained mediators are highly skilled and adept at helping families through often incredibly tumultuous periods. Working through difficulties in mediation might lead to young people staying at home with new arrangements in place, or it may lead to them leaving home but in a managed way that maintains relationships with and support from family members.
It nearly always results in increased understanding and better ways of communicating. The SCCR research reveals that most families simply do not know how to deal with conflict constructively, and this can lead to young people walking out of the family home without exploring all their options fully. As well as learning how to deal with arguments themselves more effectively young people considering leaving home benefit from specialist housing help and advice.
A two-pronged approach to dealing with family conflict where young people are at risk of homelessness is key – we need professional mediators to provide relationship support and conflict management skills and we also need specialist housing professionals to offer information, advice and guidance. This is the model that has become the template for Relationships Scotland’s partnership approach with Scotland’s leading homelessness charity, Shelter. Relationships Scotland Family Mediation Tayside and Fife and Shelter Scotland have collaborated to deliver the incredibly successful Safe & Sound project to prevent the negative impacts of unsettled family life that lead to youth homelessness. The project offers young people a safe route back home, where appropriate. It supports young people who need to move away, in setting up and maintaining tenancies. It offers support to younger siblings in the family group, to build resilience and coping skills to lessen the chances of them becoming homeless in the future. Through mediation communication is improved and family members develop conflict management and problem solving skills to ensure a lasting impact.
Safe & Sound has supported more than 230 young people in less than two years and was commended by the Care Accolades for its success in helping young runaways to return and stay in the family home. The project was recently applauded in an in-depth study carried out by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, drawing additional praise and support from the minister for children and young people, Aileen Campbell MSP.
We all experience conflict at some time in our lives. When it’s within the family home it can make life very difficult for everyone and sometimes have far-reaching effects.
• Rosanne Cubitt is head of professional practice at Relationships Scotland