25 June 2020

Helping couch surfing teens return home

| Karyn Starmer
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Conflict Resolution Service's Hamish Guthrie in meeting room.

Hamish Guthrie, Conflict Resolution Service’s Family Support Program manager, says learning new communication skills is often the first step towards family reconciliation. Photo: Supplied.

For too many young people, home is not a haven.

Instead, their best mate’s couch is where they seek refuge from family conflict.

Experts say those who don’t return home are at significant risk of long-term homelessness. However, resolving entrenched conflict and reconnecting family is not easy.

Hamish Guthrie, Conflict Resolution Service’s Family Support Program manager, says learning new communication skills is often the first step towards reconciliation.

“Fighting and anger is the reason many young people leave home, and a young person typically couch surfs after leaving or being forced to leave,” he says. “They will ask their mate if they can stay for a while because it has all gotten too much, or a sympathetic adult might offer them a spare room.”

Hamish says even if a young person has left home, and their family has lost contact, it is not too late to get some help. The Conflict Resolution Service (CRS) Family Support Program supports young people and their families using an evidence-based approach that allows them to work with the whole family rather than focusing on any one person.

The program includes individual intake sessions, communication coaching, informal facilitated conversations and family mediation.

“Meeting each family member is an important first step before we bring families together to discuss their issues,” says Hamish. “It is often quite a delicate situation so we don’t try to get everyone together straight away. Instead, we try to get to know everyone and the situation.

“To begin, we usually meet the young person and have a conversation at school or in our office. Then we meet the parents. Families may benefit from some coaching and we can teach the young person and parents techniques so they can communicate more effectively. We try to give everyone skills so they can feel prepared for the next step.”

For the young person, skills may include coping strategies; articulation of feelings and needs; learning conflict styles and barriers to communication; and differences between aggressive and assertive communication.

For parents, skills may include identifying parenting styles; learning about adolescent development; addressing inappropriate language and behaviour; the importance of parental presence; and reflecting on their involvement in the escalating conflict.

Hamish says once everyone is ready, mediation is usually informal and designed so everyone can find out what the issues are and what will help the family resolve the situation so they can live together more harmoniously.

The key to success, he says, is that all parties accept there must be some level of change.

“There needs to be buy-in from all parties,” he explains.

Targeted at young people aged between 12 and 20, families can access the CRS Family Support Program through self-referral, or the issue is often picked up by high schools when they see that a young person is struggling.

“People often have a negative image of kids who don’t live at home, but we often find it is no particular fault of the young person but rather an issue within family dynamics and relationships,” says Hamish. “They do want to live at home.”

CRS stays involved with families for up to six months to ensure agreements stay on track. If additional supports are needed, CRS works in close collaboration with schools and other youth and family focused agencies which provide outreach services in the ACT.

“Supporting families is very rewarding work,” says Hamish. “It is always great to see families back together.”

For more information, visit Conflict Resolution Service.

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