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Just don't shut the door on me: aspirations of adolescents in crisis.

A qualitative investigation examined aspirations of youth experiencing significant educational, legal, or emotional difficulty. A research panel of five professional school counselors analyzed transcripts from interviews of 15 youth having multiple risk factors. Data revealed that, despite considerable obstacles, these young people typically held clear hopes for future education, careers, family relationships, civic involvement, and personal satisfaction. The findings underscore the importance of school counselors' advocacy for youth in crisis.


Risk and resilience have been identified as concepts central to adolescent physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development. Investigations into risk have identified numerous factors associated with educational failure, legal involvement, mental illness, or other adjustment difficulties (Compas, Hinden, & Gerhardt, 1995). However, resilience studies have uncovered protective processes that prevent or mitigate these poor developmental outcomes (Benson, 1993; Garmezy, 1991; Richardson, 2002; Rutter, 1987).

Youth who become overwhelmed by risk historically have been viewed by researchers and practitioners as lacking resilience, in contrast to those showing better adjustment in the face of risk factors (Anthony, 1974). However, many individuals with serious adolescent adjustment difficulties have eventually adapted successfully (Long & Vaillant, 1984; Werner & Smith, 1992).

Adults who themselves survived a troubled adolescence have pointed to an inner sense of purpose as crucial for their eventual adjustment (Gilgun, 1996; Werner & Smith, 1992). Such hope may operate as one resilience mechanism in the eventual positive adjustment of struggling adolescents. Yet little research has centered specifically on the aspirations of young people experiencing school failure, legal involvement, or emotional problems.

School counselors are charged with promoting healthy career, academic, and personal/social development of all students, including those who under achieve or show poor adjustment. Assuring the achievement of historically marginalized students has become even more compelling since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (the No Child Left Behind Act). The need for a clear picture of the aspirations of young people in significant legal, educational, or emotional difficulty demands further investigation.

Our phenomenological study sought to discover what aspirations operate, even in contexts of severe risk, to support the eventual adjustment of young people in crisis. It addressed this broad research question: What visions, hopes, and dreams do adolescents in crisis hold for their future lives?


Structured individual interviews provided information about the hopes and dreams of youth who had encountered educational failure, legal involvement, and emotional disturbance. Interviews were recorded, and transcripts were analyzed for themes by a panel of professional school counselors trained in qualitative methodology. A complete description of data and procedures is available from the first author by request.

Participants were 15 volunteers enrolled in a Midwestern day treatment facility for young people identified as having severe emotional disturbance. The group included 13 males and 2 females ranging in age from 13 years to 17 years. Thirteen of the youth were Caucasian, 1 was Hispanic, and 1 was Native American. Nine attended public school as well as day treatment, and most of the remaining 6 intended to return to school. All participants had histories with multiple risk factors such as family disruption, domestic violence, parental psychopathology or substance abuse, maltreatment, poverty, educational failure or expulsion, legal involvement, and mental illness. No participant had experienced fewer than three documented risk factors.


In answer to the research question, individual interview responses produced themes in the domains of educational aspirations, work aspirations, personal satisfaction, family life, and community involvement. The domains corresponded to life roles of student, worker, "leisurite," family member, and citizen (Super, 1990). Some commonalities were apparent in several themes across domains.

Educational Aspirations

In spite of persistent educational difficulties, 10 participants named specific, ambitious plans for postsecondary schooling, either college or vocational school, leading to a career. They described favorite learning approaches as experiential opportunities that offered the chance to "do stuff," such as a middle school technology education class: "You can just do stuff ... with your hands.... You can make skateboards and bows." However, 3 expressed only vague ideas about postsecondary schooling, showing openness to learning but uncertainty about how or where they would do so: "I don't know; I don't think I'll go to college. Maybe a tech school. A technical college, then Las Vegas."

Work Aspirations

Most participants expressed specific, realistic ideas for possible jobs, such as construction, landscaping, and ministry. Their current paid or unpaid work experiences (e.g., helping a family construction business) provided the foundation for these occupational hopes. Most also expressed a strong work ethic: "My parents don't give me a whole lot of money, and that's why I've worked for it.... So now I know that as an adult, I have to get a good job and succeed." A few, however, dreamed of very improbable or fantasy-based means of future support such as professional sports, spying, or "just fishing, then sell them."

Aspirations for Personal Satisfaction

All young people in the study foresaw future satisfaction involving the extension of present activities, making this one of the study's few themes expressed by every participant. Each described at least one current activity of interest and hoped to keep at it as an adult. Interests included many requiring skill and commitment, such as the hobbies of these two boys: "Stuff" with cars and trucks. Fix them, drive them a little. Working on cars, there's little time I won't be working on a car. Sometimes it doesn't even need it, but we'll just make it a little better," or "I gotta bowl more. I like to bowl a lot!" In contrast, some reflected a much more limited experience base; one girl anticipated only "joyriding, I guess. Either joyriding or shopping."

Family Life Aspirations

Despite significant disruptions in many of their own family lives, most participants maintained hope for stable, satisfying future families. Descriptions of themselves as future parent and partner, voiced by 11 of the youth, were exacting in detail and touching in idealism: "Probably go to work at my own veterinary office, and then go home, eat supper with my wife and kids, play with the animals outside, and then probably get a good night's sleep." Most vowed to model and teach values such as respect, honesty, and responsibility to their children: "To obey the law. Not to run away from the cops if you're in trouble." They also intended to provide family members with resources they themselves had missed: "And my mom, seeing how much she struggles ... I want to be able to have material things, to not go to bed and worry at night, 'Am I going to get my lights shut off because I can't pay the bill?"' In several cases, the vision of future satisfaction included reuniting with lost family members: "When I grow up, find my real parents.... The only thing, I just don't want someone to shut the door on me."

However, 3 participants wanted no new family relationships as adults. One said "no one" would be in his family, and another saw himself living with "probably just me and my mom and my dog."

Aspirations for Community Involvement

The majority of participants, whose problems had warranted intervention by various agencies, nevertheless foresaw positive community connections in their futures. Some predicted involvement in hobby-based or service groups (fishing clubs, bowling leagues, volunteer firefighters); a few voiced a desire to use their own troubles for others' benefit, for example, as school-based mentor: "Those people, the ones that help out younger kids ... just because I've been through a lot and I know what it feels like."


Common links connect these themes and provide answers to the research question: What visions, hopes, and dreams do adolescents in day treatment hold for their futures? Although their difficult circumstances suggested a lack of resilience, their dreams challenged this designation.

For all these youth, seeds of hope for the future were rooted in the soil of their current experiences and relationships. Participants who had somehow maintained interests and involvement, even in the midst of significant trouble, were able to envision future satisfaction, occupational stability, and contribution to the community. In contrast, those with constricted interests and tenuous connections reflected vague, narrow, and unrealistic dreams.

A stubborn optimism, a drive to make the best of difficulties, colored the hopes of most of these struggling youth. In spite of turbulent family backgrounds, they wished to live in a family, nurture others, pass on important values, and even teach from their own troubles. School failure had not turned them off from learning; most expressed excitement about the chance to become better educated. They valued employment, and they envisioned themselves as productive, contributing citizens.

The study found that the majority of these struggling adolescents nevertheless retained strong aspirations. But the study's results also suggest a heterogeneity of aspirations, from specific and achievable for most, to questionable, even bleak, for a few. This heterogeneity of aspirations may provide a critical link in the developmental trajectories of adults who incurred serious difficulty as adolescents but went on to achieve stable, satisfying adult lives (Long & Vaillant, 1984; Werner & Smith, 1992).

Closer investigation of the assets, not just the deficits, of youth in crisis is essential. Few investigations have suggested the possibility of resilience among adolescents showing poor adjustment; this study provides one such body of evidence. Additional studies of young people in critical circumstances are needed to illuminate other processes that may support their recovery.

Current connections were critical to aspirations of the youth in this study. Participants showed varying levels of connection to school and community. School counselors, among all professionals in school and community, offer crucial support for young people in trouble.

Charged with promoting all students' academic, personal/social, and career development (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2005), school counselors serve as advocates for young people in circumstances of risk. School counselors operating within an advocacy framework are well positioned to argue against marginalization and to build the very connections that will bridge youth in crisis to successful futures (Bemak & Chung, 2008). Specifically, school counselors can respond to the voices of this study's participants in the following ways:

1. Help youth in crisis to identify their strengths and interests and to pursue them effectively. The individual planning function (ASCA, 2005) of school counselors provides a fertile context for helping struggling adolescents to learn about themselves and their options for their future. Most students in this study demonstrated a strong interest in continuing their learning beyond high school; a few had only vague notions about future prospects. Students in both groups need information about and assistance with the full range of postsecondary options.

2. Provide broad-based school programs that nourish the aspirations of young people in crisis. Even in the face of legal, educational, and emotional difficulties, most participants voiced determination, a strong work ethic, and clear values. School counselors are leaders in providing educational programs that plant and cultivate aspirations for success as workers, family members, citizens, and individuals. Effective pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 developmental guidance curricula are critical to youth who have limited support outside the school setting.

3. Cultivate warm personal relationships with youth in crisis. Although none of the participants attended school full time at the time of the study, most were attending for part of the day and all intended to return. Students in such circumstances easily become invisible, but their histories of transition and disruption cry out for consistency and connection in school. The school counselor is uniquely positioned to follow a student in crisis over the course of several years' enrollment, serving as that student's "still point of the turning world" (Eliot, 1935, para. 5).


This investigation explored the experiences of one group of youth who shared commonalities of geography, enrollment in a particular treatment program, and voluntary involvement in the study. Therefore, the study's findings apply only to its participants and cannot be generalized without further research. Also, the derivation of domains, core ideas, themes, and models was impacted by the composition of the research panel. Panelists and the primary investigator were all public school counselors; their perspectives as professionals and researchers are integral to the conclusions herein.

All youth in this study of aspirations had been exposed to multiple risk influences and showed significant adjustment difficulty. Yet they typically held clear hopes for a future with satisfying relationships, further education, regular and meaningful employment, and ties to the larger community.

Practitioners can learn from the words of these adolescents. School counselors can collaborate with other educators and adults to arrange for the broad range of experiences that will instill hopes for rich futures. They can nurture the inner strengths of youth in crisis and, as part of a broader community, embrace young people who greatly need connection.


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Anthony, E. J. (1974).The syndrome of the psychologically invulnerable child. In E.J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family, Vol. 3: Children at psychiatric risk (pp 529-544). New York: John Wiley.

Bemak, F., & Chung, R. C. (2005). Advocacy as a critical role for urban school counselors: Working toward equity and social justice. Professional School Counseling, 8, 196-202.

Benson, P. L. (1993). The troubled journey: A portrait of 6th-12th grade youth. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

Compas, B. E., Hinden, B. R., & Gerhardt, C. A. (1995). Adolescent development: A comparison of delinquent, at-risk, and not-at-risk your h. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 441-450.

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Gilgun, J. F. (1996). Human development and adversity in ecological perspective, Part 2: Three patterns. Families in Society, 77, 459-476.

Long, J.V., & Vaillant, G. E. (1984). Natural history of male psychological health, XI: Escape from the underclass. American Journal of Psychiatry, 141, 341-346.

Richardson, G. E. (2002). The metatheory of resilience and resiliency. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 307-321.

Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 316-331.

Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development (2nd ed., pp. 197-261). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Barbara L. Flom, Ph.D., is an associate professor, School of Education, University of Wisconsin- Stout. E-mail:

Sunny Sundal Hansen, Ph.D., is professor emerita, Department of Education Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
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Author:Hansen, Sunny Sundal
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Article Type:Survey
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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