When emotions swell between teenager and parent, both sides sometimes say and do things they later wish they could take back. Imagine the fear when tempers reach the point where the teen runs away or is kicked out of the house. Where has my child gone, asks the frantic parent. Where will I go, asks the frightened teen.
The more than two million teens who have run away or were told to leave due to unresolved family conflict represent a national emergency — and a tragedy.
"It's tragic, since most families actually love each other; their main problem is not knowing how to handle conflict," said Norweeta Milburn, UCLA associate research psychologist and director of UCLA's Project Strive (Support To Reunite, Involve and Value Each Other), a research project targeting teens who leave home and their families.
Part of the Center for Community Health at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, Project Strive offers an intervention program for families in Los Angeles County. Approximately 320 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 and their families are being recruited in an effort to reduce chronic adolescent homelessness and HIV-related risk behaviors by teaching teens and their parents or guardians the skills necessary to deal with unresolved conflict and family separation.
When teens are adrift, some end up on the streets, while others move from shelter to shelter or "couch surf" at the homes of friends. Many teens do eventually return home, but because the family conflict often remains unresolved, they leave again and again, with more and more time spent away from the home as a result.
"The key is to interrupt this cycle of evolving problem behaviors while adolescents are still newly homeless," said Francisco Javier Iribarren, project director for Project Strive. "Otherwise, over time, they typically develop social networks with chronically homeless individuals and progressively engage in more HIV-related risk behaviors."
The intervention techniques are useful for teens who have left home, as well as for those who have returned, and involve five short-term skill-building sessions between parents and the adolescent. Techniques to manage emotions, to communicate in a positive way and to learn problem-solving skills are taught to prevent further runaway episodes that can eventually lead to chronic homelessness. The sessions can take place either at the agency or in the home, depending on where it is most comfortable and convenient for the teen and their family.
Project Strive's staff is ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse, said Iribarren, and is ideally suited to serving Los Angeles County's very diverse families.
"Project Strive's vision is unique," said Ted Knoll, executive director of the Whittier First Day Homeless Coalition and a Project Strive collaborator. "Its goal is to prevent teenagers from becoming chronically homeless. As someone serving this population, I find Strive to be critically important, especially since there is nothing like it out there."
The effort is being funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. For more information on Project Strive, please contact the project assessment coordinator, Katie Maresca, at (310) 794-6076 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. In addition to conducting fundamental research, the institute faculty seeks to develop effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, improve access to mental health services, and shape national health policy regarding neuropsychiatric disorders.