Young person becoming independent, a strengthening agent – support for those about to reach the age of majority

Karla Malm

In Finnish: Itsenäistyvä nuori, vahvistuva toimija – tukea täysi-ikäisyyden kynnyksellä


Young people who are becoming independent are provided support at the Espoo Emergency Youth Shelter of Red Cross by means of family, network and individual support and volunteer mentor activities. Those receiving the support are young people about to reach the age of majority with numerous different factors that are prompting them to become independent. What is in common in these transitions is that due to an external factor, these young people are required to become independent more quickly that the young person or his or her next of kin have been able to anticipate.

The research material comprises eight interviews (support for independence professionals n=5 and persons in the social network of a young person who has participated/is participating in support activities n=3). The professionals interviewed comprise the Red Cross coordinating a support for independence (ITU) project, the City of Espoo child protection that comes under family and social services and Espoo housing counselling.

The research material directed what concepts became important: in the course of the research it became apparent that the interviewees often returned to certain themes, such as the importance of next of kin and family work. The recurrent topics were itemised by themes, and they were listed in relation to the research literature. The key concepts in the research were agency, social network, transition and independence. Social relationships, independence and autonomy and their mutual relationship provided a fruitful point of departure for the interpretation of the content and goals of the support for independence.

At its simplest, agency means a person’s ability to make decisions and choices concerning his or her own life. Agency can be understood as a sense of location and as situational. This is how the relational dimension of agency manifests itself: agency, even when autonomous, is integrated with relationships and interaction (Juvonen 2015, 164; Emirbayer & Mische, 973–974). Relational agency is determined more through the mutual dependency between people than through independence (Juvonen 2015, 42).

The research highlights the significance of the agency and social network of a young person in the support activities as well as the goals set for independence. What form does independence take? What is a phase of life characterised by anticipation like – for one reason or another, a young person is facing a change, but the everyday life, direction and goals of the new phase of life are only just taking shape. Can the process of striving for independence ever be completed?

The approach of support for independence avoids determining independence as an unambiguous, linear transition where a young person transitions away from his or her childhood home and the needs for support and towards an independent life. A transition does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the need for support. Thus, the transition does not mean a transition towards a predetermined end point. Looming large in the phase after the transition may be independent living, a return home or another alternative, and none of these may necessarily mean a failure to become independent. A linearly progressing course of life does not necessarily reflect the young people’s situations in life, or even their wishes, very well.

Becoming independent is not a transition towards being self-sufficient, but instead means the reshaping of the mutual dependencies between people (Cameron et al. 2018). Laying emphasis on the significance of human neediness and social relationships is very essential in the support for independence. This is observable in the way that the concept of independence is determined: in this project, supporting independence means primarily the strengthening of agency. Agency is not built up separately from social reality, but is integrated with the social relationships between people and manifested through them (Juvonen 2015, 41–42, 164; Emirbayer & Mische 1998, 973–974). Thus, the social network of a young person plays an important role. Functioning human relationships are particularly essential in social integration in a situation where the connections built through work and education are missing (Suutari 2002, 106–107). In the support for independence, the starting point is that it is the young person who determines his or her family, which may include brothers and sisters, godmother or godfather, or other relatives or adults of importance to the young person.

According to the research, one of the sub-areas of strengthening agency is 1) strengthening of the social relationships of a young person and improved communication. In this way the activity takes into account the mutual dependencies and social relationships that inevitably belong to humanity. Another sub-area is 2) coping with everyday life. Coping with everyday life can be investigated through concrete measures, such as the daily rhythm, use of money and knowing how to deal with bureaucracy. The professionals agreed, however, that even though coping with the everyday routines is important and to some extent provides protects against the risks included in the intermediate phase, it is not a sufficient goal on its own.

A third sub-area is 3) the young person’s own experience of strengthening his or her own agency. Even though any type of agency in any type of situation is not necessarily something to wish for, many of the characteristics essential for the support for independence boil down to the emphasising of experience: flexibility, avoidance of external criteria and awareness of the normative nature of expectations.

The strengthening of social relationships and improved communication, coping with everyday life and a young person’s own experience of the strengthening of his or her own agency together form a situation which support for independence aims to achieve. The fulfilment of one intermediate goal is not sufficient alone to decide whether the support should be ended, but it is rather a matter of the whole formed together by the goals. When a decision is made to end the support, it is done jointly between all the parties involved. It is clear that the young person’s own view about his or her situation in life plays an essential role in voluntary activities. In the support for independence, a young person gaining independence is, above all, a strengthening agent.

Keywords: young people, living, independence, agency, organisations, child protection, multi-professionalism, municipalities, social networks