For many young people, the loneliness of growing up is a bigger problem than ever, writes Anthony N. Castle.
Adolescence is a time when young people are expected to become increasingly independent, but experts across Australia are coming to the same conclusion: young people don’t want to be left alone—because they already feel abandoned.
“Kelly’s family breakdown began when her father found a new partner,” explains Megan Casey, a manager for a youth homelessness service at The Salvation Army Ingle Farm.* Megan oversees a service that assisted 636 homeless young people with finding accommodation in the last financial year.
“Most of the young people that come through our services don’t have a nuclear family. The new partner in Kelly’s home wasn’t safe, but the father chose the relationship over his daughter. Kelly was kicked out of home.”
Kelly became homeless at 18—one of approximately 18,000 young people aged 12–25 who are homeless in Australia each year. Like many, she couch-surfed at friends’ houses until those relationships broke down as well. Kelly then had no choice but to sleep rough.
Kelly eventually found accommodation at an emergency shelter operated by The Salvation Army. The youth workers at the shelter helped Kelly move into transitional housing but the isolation that resulted was not helpful.
“After moving into the transitional house, Kelly had such a decline in mental health she ended up in the Emergency Department,” Megan explains. “Young people don’t just need a house, they need relationship and community. Giving them a house doesn’t give them a home or a family. It doesn’t fix the abandonment.”
That sense of abandonment isn’t just experienced after literal family breakdown and homelessness, but is an issue for young people in more stable, nuclear families as well.
Our society defines adulthood as self-reliance, and adolescence is seen as a transition to independence. Young people don’t often have the support and community they need to manage this change healthily. For many of them, growing up is a time when they face larger challenges while finding themselves increasingly alone. As a result, they can feel abandoned.
“That sense of abandonment is something every young person is feeling, regardless of whether they’re actually homeless,” says John Marion, a youth worker and researcher who helps co-ordinate some of the The Salvation Army’s engagement with youth and young people. John recently spearheaded a research project titled The Long and Lonely Road, which focused on the developmental challenges of Australian adolescence.
“More is expected of young people than ever, but we’ve never offered them less support and resource,” John explains. “Young people have fewer extended family members and social groups than they once did.”
Proximity to people and connection to community is what sociologists sometimes refer to as social capital. Social capital is the network of relationships that enables someone to function in society, and those relationships have significantly decreased for young people in the last 50 years.
Social institutions like churches and community clubs no longer play a large role in the lives of most young people. A young person’s primary form of support has traditionally been their parents but family dynamics have changed as well. It is common today for parents to work full-time and for extended family to live further away.
“There is a real sense that young people turn 13 and are suddenly told to succeed independently,” John says. “They hear this message and think, ‘I need to do this on my own’. If completing adolescence is to become independent, some young people then feel that when they ask for help, they are failing at becoming an adult.”
Research shows that young people will actually seek help from friends before their parents, and half of respondents were just as likely to consult the internet as their own siblings. One review of youth mental health services found that 70% of young people felt as if they are meant to fix their problems on their own.
While society often thinks that youth want to be left alone, it is actually the presence of caring parents and community members that they need. If the problem for young people is a sense of abandonment, then the solution is relationships.
“One of the things our research has found is the single greatest predictor of positive outcomes in young people is the presence of a caring adult in their lives,” John says. “Young people need adults who are there for them, not because of an agenda or an expectation, but because they care about who they are.”
The presence of a caring adult was certainly the support Kelly needed after the challenge of living alone in transitional housing. The Salvation Army’s youth workers found Kelly alternative accommodation in a program share house, one that also houses other young people with an adult in a support role. This form of transitional housing is known as a Lead Tenant arrangement.
“In a Lead Tenant house,” Megan explains, “Kelly lives with a supportive adult who can model living. They’re not there as a parent or an authority figure, but they’re there. After she had moved in, her mental health improved straight away. Her response was ‘I just love that there is someone that I can tell whether I’m coming home or not’.”
Kelly had no-one to go to, and nowhere to go—and what she needed was proximity to people and connection to community.
“She’s connected to the community at the local Salvation Army centre,” Megan says. “She’s started volunteering with its youth program. She’s now in full-time employment too.”
While not every young person will become homeless as Kelly did, the sense of abandonment can be the same. The question becomes: how can adults in the community respond, whether they are parents, teachers, or neighbours?
“Young people need to know someone is potentially there for them, someone they can reach out to,” Megan says. “You might need to reach out first, and how you do that might look different for different young people. It might be saying hello, sending a friendly text or inviting them to dinner. It’s as simple as that. We make it complicated. Young people just need to know that they’re not alone.”
*Details of story have been altered in order to protect the privacy of persons involved.
For any who may be in need of youth services offered by The Salvation Army, information can be found online:
For more information on this issue, download The Salvation Army’s youth development research report: