FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Living on Your Own
Two Therapists Give Their Tips for Life After Aging Out
Represent staff

For tips on living on your own, Represent talked to Marina Stolerman, PsyD, and Sylvia Lester, PhD, both psychotherapists with The Fostering Connection, a New York City group that offers free therapy to youth and young adults who’ve experienced foster care. Some of their answers are psychological, but many are practical. Those two make a feedback loop: When you take practical steps to take care of yourself and your home, it makes you feel better.

Q: How can you prepare to live on your own for the first time after growing up in foster care?
Sylvia Lester: There’s a huge wish to be independent and on one’s own after care. The reality is that it can be lonely living by yourself, and that takes a lot of young adults by surprise.

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Cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry for yourself, by yourself (instead of for your siblings or foster family) is brand new. If your experience with those things is bad, from a foster home, you might resent following the rules. You have to re-learn a way to take care of yourself and your home if you don’t have good associations—or if you never learned in the first place.

Marina Stolerman: You want all this freedom and then realize you wish you had someone else to build structure for you. But you can create your own structure, and breaking it down into smaller pieces makes it easier. Hang a calendar, get a planner, make a schedule for cleaning and other chores, set a time to pay your bills, keep a shopping list in the kitchen.

Managing your money is especially challenging; there’s a lot to learn. Mint.com is a simple budgeting tool that can be helpful.

Take a piece of your life and practice imposing structure on it before you age out. Moving and packing is tough; start doing the other job and money stuff before you have to move to your own apartment.

SL: Another thing to start learning before you age out is taking care of your health. Learn about getting your vaccinations, and have health insurance and a doctor lined up. (Under Obamacare, youth who age out of care stay covered by Medicaid until age 26.)

Q: If you haven’t been loved or prepared for independence by parents, how do you step up and take care of yourself? What are some ways to fill in those gaps?
SL: Be ready to feel conflicted or depressed: You will confront many unmet wishes from your childhood. It’s harder to create a safe space if you never had it.

It can help keep you from getting overwhelmed if you tackle specific ways to make yourself feel better. You need a voice inside your head that helps you take care of yourself, that says, “What should I do today to make sure I’ll have what I’ll want tomorrow?” Part of every young person on their own for the first time is saying, “I’m on my own now, I’m free! Nobody can tell me what to do.” You will learn to anticipate tomorrow and understand that you will regret waking up hung over with no food in the fridge.

MS: We all have the devil and the angel on our shoulder; the destructive voice that says, “Now I don’t have to clean or even get out of bed!” and the helpful voice that can steer us to things that make us happy in the long run. It’s a little like the Cherokee proverb: A man tells his grandson that two dogs fight inside all of us: a bad dog that represents hatred, fear, and greed; and a good dog that represents kindness, courage, and love. The boy asks his grandfather, “Which dog wins?” and the grandfather answers, “The one you feed.” The good dog or the angel on our shoulder is a protective instinct we need to cultivate.

Maybe an intermediary step to your shoulder-angel or good dog is to think of a friend or trusted adult, a person who sees the best in you and sticks with you when mess up. Think of that person and ask, “What would they encourage me to do to make my life better? What would they want for me? Would they say, ‘Hey, slow down with the drinking?’ or, ‘Go ahead and get yourself the manicure, you deserve it,’ or, ‘Why not hold off a couple months to buy a new phone until you’ve saved more money?’” It’s a good transition to being responsible for yourself.

image by YC-Art Dept

Q: What are some strategies to deal with loneliness?
MS: Nobody loves being alone all the time, but you can learn to enjoy it. Pick an hour on Sunday where you just listen to music, watch a show you like, read a book or listen to a podcast, have your coffee in bed, do yoga or some exercise you find on YouTube, do your hair, or make something (paint, draw, write, make jewelry). This way, you can practice being connected to yourself in a pleasurable way. Pair solitude with a pleasant, healthy experience.

SL: Have people over for dinner. Then you get to be witnessed and praised, and your home becomes a place you share. It’s important that friends see your place and that you feel proud.

Q: If you don’t have a lot of money, how can you make your home nice?
SL: Even if your stuff isn’t expensive, you can still keep the apartment clean and that will make you feel better. How do you feel when you walk in? If you don’t take care of your place, you can start to feel ashamed and then spiral down to feeling like you don’t deserve a clean and cozy place. It’s important to know what feels cozy to you. Keep food in the fridge and keep things orderly; that helps you feel in control of your life.

MS: We create a feeling of safety and of worth inside of ourselves and then we put it out in the world. It flows in both directions. Clean towels, fluffy pillows, a special place for your keys, a made bed, a nice meal all help you build self-worth, and then you treat yourself better.

Q: Any advice for getting through the holidays if you’re just starting out living alone?
MS: Plan ahead for holidays. If you don’t have family to spend it with, find other friends who won’t be with family. Spend holidays with whoever makes you feel good, whoever you want to be generous to. Make up your own rituals.

SL: Figure out what makes a holiday nice, and take it from there. Be concrete in your imagining—what and who makes you feel good? Think of what you wish someone else would do for you, and figure out what’s do-able and do it. Your holiday doesn’t have to match anything on TV or a magazine. Have a conversation with yourself, pick what you like and enjoy that freedom.

And if you act on that and then you’re disappointed with part of your created holiday (or dinner or home), you have more information on what you like and don’t like. That’s not a total loss; that’s learning what you like and who you are.

Q: How do you make new friends?
MS: Find groups or activities that line up with what you like. If you like animals, volunteer at a shelter. Take an art class or join a book group or a softball team or a political advocacy group.

Q: How do you know who to trust?
MS: Ask yourself: What would that trusted voice say about this new person? What’s drawing me to them? What do I have in common with this person? Do they encourage me to do things that bring me closer to my goals or pull me away from them?

Q: If you have roommates, how do you get along with them?
MS: Make house rules about things like sharing food, communal meals, and bringing people home. Divide up cleaning and paying bills. Make a list, regulate as many logistics as you can, and you’ll get along better. Have clear rules about music and TV volume and quiet time so everyone gets their sleep.

If you’re not sure how to ask a housemate to not do something that bothers you, think, “how would you like to be asked?” and try that way.

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