Chronic homelessness among young people often is traced to factors such as family violence, substance abuse and negative peer pressure—issues that are difficult to address and whose impact is hard to measure.
Leading community psychologist and APA Fellow Norweeta Milburn, PhD, thinks she may have developed a surprisingly simple intervention: She is teaching teenagers and their families how to fight fair.
Milburn and colleagues at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center have developed an innovative, on-the-ground behavioral intervention that brings together young people and their parents/guardians for training on some basic communication and problem-solving skills.
“We argue that when a young person leaves home there is an unresolved conflict,” says Milburn. “The intervention is devised so that young people can argue with their parent or guardian in a more effective way so that they don’t have to leave home. We’re teaching them how to communicate better.”
The five-part psychosocial behavioral program, called STRIVE (Support to Reunite, Involve and Value Each Other), is highly adaptable and can be delivered on the teenager’s home turf—it’s been field tested in living rooms, teen centers and fast-food restaurants—wherever a client agrees to meet up with his or her guardian and a trained facilitator.
A STRIVE facilitator helps individuals identify family strengths while pinpointing sources of conflict. The facilitator introduces tools for emotional regulation, such as feeling thermometers, to help them gauge their levels of emotional arousal.
By setting small, winnable goals, the family members learn to identify a conflict, apply some problem-solving strategies, and work through concrete solutions. In the process, they often create a more positive family atmosphere—as evidenced by the “before” and “after” photographs facilitators take of participants, the latter often showing parents and children with their arms around each other.
Parents need the skills just as much as the kids, notes Milburn. “It may be a mother who is really exhausted, and part of her homework is to just get an hour of her own space. We’re trying to help them be the parent, be in control, but to do it in a way that is positive for their child and age appropriate.”
The idea for the intervention came out of her years of research on homelessness. Milburn, currently Professor-in-Residence at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, was among the first social scientists to establish differences among homeless young people.
Her 1999 study of homeless adolescents in the Los Angeles area showed that newly homeless youth who still maintained some ties to family had fewer risk behaviors than did their more chronically homeless counterparts. More than two-thirds returned home within six months, particularly if they had maintained contact with mainstream peers and with family.
Milburn cut her teeth on social research as a postdoc at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was the 1970s, and she was among the first wave of students working with pioneering social research psychologist Richard Price in what was then the nascent field of community psychology.
“It was the aftermath of the Vietnam War and we were still dealing with the tumultuousness of the ‘60s,” she recalls. “Social action, political action and social movements were important areas. What community psychology did, and part of its appeal, was to really understand people’s behavior in the social context within which they lived or experienced the world.”
In 1977, Milburn contributed several survey questions to the groundbreaking National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA).
The large, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) -funded study was the first to use cutting-edge social research methods to understand the behavior and life experiences of black people in the U.S. and has shaped public policy for decades.
“A lot of work prior to that talked about how dysfunctional black families were, how underachieving black children were,” recalls Milburn. “There was a lot of negative focus in the psychological and sociological literature.”
The NSBA greatly expanded measures relevant to the quality of life for black Americans and identified cultural and social strengths including family relationships, community involvement and religious supports.
“It really shaped my work, even now with homeless adolescents,” says Milburn, adding: “Even in the poorest communities, you still have good things that are going on. How do you capture some of the good, the strength, to build interventions?”
For her work on homelessness Milburn is building on the strongest, and most vulnerable, support of all: family love. It is a bond that too often is obscured in layers of blame and misunderstanding.
“So many are highly dysfunctional families but we try to take them back to their last positive experience with each other, to the point where the love was much more visible,” notes Milburn. “We know it’s there.”