Families are for thriving, not just surviving : aged out foster youths' experiences of family, home, and estrangement
Guided by social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Gergen, 1985), and discourse-dependence (Galvin, 2006; Galvin & Braithwaite, 2014) theorizing, the present study illuminated the communicative experiences and complexities inherent to family and home life for youth who aged out of foster care. Broadly, results from 30 interviews afforded a necessary understanding of how aged out foster youth understand and process "family," "home," and family identity formation and deconstruction in conversations with others. First, findings revealed that "family" was conceptualized as those who love you unconditionally, as those who support you, and as more than blood -- signifying a valuing of function (e.g., love, support) over structure (e.g., blood/legal ties) when defining-family. The criteria aged out foster youth applied to “family” informed aged out foster youths' decision-making processes about what individuals were identified as family ingroup members, family outgroup members, and liminal group members. Second, results indicated that participants drew upon their experiences before, during, and after care when making sense of home as self, home as a place, and home as family. Third, findings revealed that aged out foster youth utilized naming, discussing, narrating, ritualizing, and normalizing to build and maintain family identity with family ingroup members. Fourth, results indicated that aged out foster youth most often estranged from biological family members due to physical actions, personal attributes, and/or lack of social support. Ultimately, participants reported estranging from family members because they defied their personal standards for family relationships. In order to actively deconstruct family identity with these family members, aged out foster youth utilized the discursive strategies of naming, discussing, deritualizing, silencing, and disassociating to deliberately defy standards of family as a way to create distance. Last, results revealed that aged out foster youth tended to focus on the positive impacts of family estrangement on the self through discussing both emotional implications (i.e., positive affect, negative affect, and mixed affect) and self-improvement implications (i.e., demonstrating empowerment, encouraging self-care, and promoting mental health). Findings contribute to family communication and family estrangement research by illuminating how aged out foster youth accounts spoke to family estrangement as a potential pathway to self-actualization. Results also advance discourse-dependence theorizing by empirically testing Galvin and Braithwaite's (2014) proposed identity deconstruction strategies and illuminating how standards for identity-building talk have heightened. Moreover, findings contribute to social identity and intergroup theorizing through revealing how the family ingroup is being reimagined and complicating our understandings of intergroup distinctions. A host of practical implications, such as offering estrangement coaching and developing practical skills for evaluating family, also emerged. Ultimately, results from the current study pave the way for future research to continue to explore how family and home life are discussed and experienced among aged out foster youth.
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