Preventing teenage homelessness: mediating between teenagers and their parents

Emma Dore describes the role of mediation and its effectiveness in preventing homelessness.

Arguments between parents and their teenage children are part of everyday life. For some, however, this is not just the usual tug-of-war for independence. It can mark the complete breakdown of a parent's relationship with their child. 6,000 young people become homeless each year in Scotland because the relationship with their parents has broken down. Angry words are exchanged, bags are hurriedly packed and doors slammed, possibly never to be opened again.

Anecdotal evidence from frontline workers demonstrates that conflict affects everyone in the family. Conflict between teenagers and their parents demonstrates patterns of behaviour that younger children can emulate, as well as being distressing to live with. For some younger children, seeing parents reject an older sibling, can make them anxious about the stability of their place in the home.

Mediation between young people and their families has been used in Scotland since 2001 to prevent homelessness caused by relationship breakdown. In 2011, Edinburgh Cyrenians conducted a detailed national mapping exercise of mediation services working with parents and their teenage children. Over 75% of interviewees said that mediation is most effective when used as an early intervention, before crisis hits.

This article highlights some key issues from the research.

Families, accommodation and conflict

Over the past 50 years, there have been significant changes to families. In 'reconstituted' households new relationships and rules have to be negotiated and forged; tension and conflict are often experienced (Breugel and Smith 1999). Two-thirds of the 56 young people interviewed for the report Young homeless people and their families came from disrupted homes. They were likely to have left home because of conflict between themselves and their biological parent's partner (Smith, Gilford and O'Sullivan 1998).

Not only is the family changing, but teenage years look different too. Young people's transition to independence is less structured, more gradual, and takes longer than in the past. Yet in some ways, younger teenagers are introduced to elements of adulthood at a younger age than previous generations, and puberty starts earlier than in the past (Nelson 2009). This means that adolescence is stretched at both ends, creating an artificially-long period of semi-independence. The dynamic of the transition from dependence to independence is a pervasive feature of conflict between parents and teenagers. Although this conflict is a necessary and healthy part of redefining boundaries during adolescence, the changes above may be putting increasing pressure on family relationships. In the current financial climate, with unemployment rising and welfare benefits being cut, the stress and burden on families are likely to continue to rise (Monfort 2009).

The socio-economic foundations of independent housing for young people started to fracture in the 1980s, and extended financial support from parents is increasingly required to facilitate independent moves (Furlong and Cartmel 1997). This trend has continued with drastic changes to the welfare system. Particularly significant to parents, is the rapid rise in non-dependant deductions. If a young person remains at home beyond the age of 18 with parents who receive housing benefit, the amount by which housing benefit is reduced will increase each year between 2011 and 2014. This is predicted to exacerbate tension and pressure between young people and their parents, and may result in more young people being asked to leave home.

The role of mediation in Scotland

Over the past decade, 43 projects have offered mediation between parents and teenage children. These have run in four contexts: voluntary homeless sector, family mediation, community mediation and local authority mediation, working in different ways and with varying success. Projects have generally been small, with part-time staff, with referrals coming from homeless teams, social work and from parents themselves.

Mediation helps people to resolve their conflicts and rebuild relationships. The agreements that people make through mediation are more sustainable than solutions found through other means. A mediated agreement, because it is voluntarily agreed, is more likely to be satisfactory to the participants than one imposed by professionals and, therefore, more likely to be adhered to (Emery 1994). Decisions are more likely to endure over time if the parties have assumed the responsibility of making them. Participants' control of the content of mediation also promotes quality decisions as they are the best people to define their real interests and issues (Boulle and Nesic 2001).

As services are small and scattered, there is no specific data about the national impact of such mediation. However, mediation in other contexts generally results in 70 to 80% of cases reaching a mutually-agreed successful resolution.

Mediation may result in a young person remaining at home, or returning home after a period away. Preventing the damaging effects of homelessness is of immeasurable benefit. People who have become homeless wish that they had resolved problems with their families at the start, and would advise other young people to stay at home if possible (Randall and Brown 1999).

Living at home may not be the best option. If a young person is going to move out, doing this in a safe and planned way, is far better than running away or being forced to leave hurriedly in acrimonious circumstances. Mediation can help a family to agree in advance how they will retain links and support after the young person has moved out. Family can be vital in providing support even if its members are not bound by bricks and mortar (Monfort 2009).

Young people who leave home and become homeless often think that they have burnt their bridges. Many people who have been resettled following homelessness have told researchers that they wish to re-establish amicable relationships with parents (Lemos and Crane 2001). Mediation can help a family regain positive and meaningful contact; find and strengthen any threads of relationship that remain; and re-learn how they can communicate with each other.

Support for families in conflict

Many young people who are homeless, or are at risk of homelessness, have problems including substance misuse, mental health issues and criminal activity. It is not easy to disentangle the extent to which these are causes of, or are caused by, conflicts within the family. In most cases, both factors seem to be present (Randall and Brown 2001). As one mediation worker commented, 'These cases can be so messy: mediators alone can't deliver all that service users need.' Mediators have a defined role, including that of neutral facilitator. That neutrality may be compromised if they start to offer wider support.

There have been five models of mediators working closely with support for young people. Examples are mediators having a direct referral route to support workers or support integrated within the project. Support may involve motivational interviewing, solution-focused sessions and practical assistance. Support workers can also provide information and advice about the realities of homelessness, which can significantly influence how a family understands the consequences.

Similarly, in most cases, the parents of homeless young people have serious problems. In Randall and Brown's survey of young homeless people, 48% reported that parental problems such as alcohol, drugs or mental health issues had caused them to leave. Unless support is undertaken simultaneously with parents and young people, there is little if any improvement in family relationships or young people's behaviour (Randall and Brown 2001). Through engaging with both parties, mediation offers an important perspective, recognising that youth homelessness is not about an individual, but an individual in the context of a community: their family.

Currently, only one service in Scotland gives equal support to young people and their parents. Other services signpost parents to alternative organisations. One interviewee said, It is mostly parents who we signpost on, as parents don't feel so well supported. If the parents had received support earlier on, it may never have reached this stage. Parents are often crying out for help to support their child properly. Given the impact on the whole family, some mediation teams extend their services to siblings and other family members.

Looking ahead

Mediation is a recognised aspect of homeless prevention. To date, the focus has been on young people over 16, but it is also effective with young people under 16 who have run away or are at some kind of risk.

There is considerable opportunity for partnership working between children's services and housing departments. Discussion between mediation and parenting services could help to support parents of young people at risk of homelessness, and make mediation more widely available to parents experiencing conflict within their families.

About the author

Emma Dore has worked with vulnerable children and their families for ten years. Currently she is development worker for Edinburgh Cyrenians' Amber Mediation Service. Amber provides keyworker support and professional mediation for families in conflict which is putting young people at risk of homelessness.


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Smith, J., Gilford, S. and O'Sullivan, A. (1998). Young homeless people and their families. London: Family Policy Studies Centre

Nelson, S. (2009). Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people. Nuffield Foundation. Cited in About Families (2010). Parenting teenagers: relationships and behaviour. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh

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Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (1997). Young people and social change: individualisation and risk in late modernity. Buckingham: Open University. Cited in Quilgars, D., Johnsen, S. and Pleace, N. (2008). Youth Homelessness in the UK: A decade of progress? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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