Estrangement isn’t a label that is well known or understood, it can mean different things to different people or not be understood at all. Even when estrangement is discussed, there’s often a lack of understanding about the reasons that lead to it, and a perception that things could easily be patched up if only there were a will to do so. This train of thought is deeply damaging.
We do young people a serious disservice when we fail to listen to them and trust them to know what they need to do in order to keep themselves safe and well. The most common reason for young people to become estranged from their family is that they’ve experienced abuse. The second most common reason is that a parent has rejected a child on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. These are not issues that can be easily reconciled.
Let’s be clear: estrangement is no petty matter. It isn’t just a difficult relationship, it’s about the fundamental absence of connection and attachment that people rely on to prosper. It’s difficult for young people to talk about – it may be difficult to explain a situation and some people may actively conceal it as a consequence of feeling ‘other’. With a lack of both understanding and open conversation around estrangement some young people might not recognise themselves within that label, and not realise that they are not alone.
The great work that many universities are doing isn’t always connecting with all the people for whom it would make a difference; as so many estranged young people pass through the university system invisibly, the resources they need may never be identified and provided because no one knows they are there. That’s why Estranged Student Solidarity Week is such an important opportunity to talk.
Here at the Unite Foundation, our experience of delivering scholarships for estranged students showed us that identifying those who need support can be a significant challenge. As a result, we changed the timing of our scholarships so that students are awarded them before enrolling at university and can take their scholarship anywhere within our network of universities should they change their university or course. This incentive encouraged people to identify themselves as estranged which brought them into contact with their university early enough to benefit from the onboarding efforts of the institution and subsequent support throughout their years of study. Again, uniquely our scholarships are also available to existing students, reaching in to students that have already begun their studies, encouraging them to make themselves known and access the support they need. This can be especially important for young people who become estranged during their time at university.
The number of applications from estranged young people is growing exponentially – a welcome side-effect of the conversations that are now happening – gradually opening up the conversation, helping people to understand what it means to be estranged and making it easier for people to identify themselves.
We still don’t know how many young people are estranged from their families and what proportion of them make it to university. We hope that, in time, the Government will start to measure the numbers of young people affected so that the public, private and third sectors can work together to put the support that they need together.