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tay.jpgTransition age youth (or “TAY”) is a term used to refer to the population of older adolescents or young adults with involvement in or in the process of transitioning from child-serving systems. Based on an expanded definition developed through the U.S. National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN): 
Transition Age Youth include young people, typically between the ages of 16 to 25, who are approaching transition from child-serving system(s) (e.g., child welfare, juvenile justice, education, behavioral health) due to “aging out” – leaving a formal system of care because of reaching a certain age – or other circumstances (i.e., achievement of case plans, graduation, etc.). While TAY have a complex set of needs and face many challenges, they also have the potential to lead successful adult lives when offered resilience-building resources, strategies, and support (Kisiel et al., 2021).
Transition age youth, also referred to as emerging adults, often have a range of trauma experiences, mental health needs, and functional difficulties, as described below (Kisiel et al., 2021; Spinelli et al., 2021; Spinelli et al., 2020). There is a growing need to further understand this population of youth as they are often considered vulnerable and may be at greater risk of negative outcomes as they transition out of child-serving systems and are exposed to new or ongoing challenges. Further, many of these youth do not consistently access mental health or other services in adult settings, as these services may be more challenging to access or are considered less relevant to current needs or identities of these youth. Resources and supports may also be less available to these youth once they transition from child-serving systems (Kisiel et al., 2021). Therefore, understanding the needs of TAY, tailoring services to young people with intersecting identities, and supporting them through trauma-informed and strengths-based services is a critical priority for service providers (Kisiel et al., 2020; Kisiel et al., 2021; Spinelli et al., 2020). 

Key Issues for Transition Age Youth: Needs and Challenges

Transition age youth are often exposed to multiple types of traumas or adverse events that are associated with a range of trauma-related symptoms, functional difficulties, and other challenges (Courtney et al., 2010; Kisiel et al., 2021; Spinelli et al., 2021).  Further, with the context of system involvement (e.g., within child welfare and juvenile justice in particular), there is an additional set of stressors and potential adverse experiences for TAY that can be compounded by separation from family, limited family supports, experiences of systemic racism and oppression, along with other factors (Kisiel et al., 2020; 2021).
Exposure to this range of traumas can lead to various negative outcomes for TAY. This can include a range of traumatic stress symptoms as well as other mental health symptoms and risk behaviors, including difficulties with relationships, withdrawal and avoidance, suicidality and self-harm, impulsivity, aggression, and substance use (Courtney et al., 2010; Kisiel et al., 2021).  Further, the process of aging out of these systems, particularly when there is unaddressed trauma and limited support, is associated with additional negative outcomes, including problems with housing and homelessness, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, unemployment, and decline in mental health service use (Courtney et al., 2010; Spinelli et al., 2021). Many of these challenges have been further exacerbated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as several TAY who recently exited the system lost many of the achievements made towards self-sufficiency (e.g., in education, employment, housing; Rosenberg, 2022).
Given the myriad of issues and challenges faced by TAY, there is an even greater urgency to understand and address the impact of trauma and the resources needs for this population of youth. In response to this growing need, the Center for Child Trauma Assessment, Services, and Systems Integration (CCTASSI) at Northwestern University, a Center of the NCTSN engaged in several ongoing research and evaluation efforts and resource development activities focused on TAY over the last several years. This has included conducting a comprehensive needs assessment with TAY and their providers in child welfare, with a focus on understanding challenges, strengths, and the need for trauma-informed services and resources, based on provider and youth perspectives. These activities informed the development of trauma-informed resources about the difficulties as well as strengths and resilience of TAY. These efforts also helped to identify concrete strategies and techniques that clinicians and other providers can utilize to support resilience and strengths-building in their work with TAY. A summary of these resources and strategies is described in more detail below. 

Focus on Strengths: Supporting and Empowering Transition Age Youth

While there has been an enhanced focus in research and evaluation efforts on the ongoing needs and challenges faced by TAY, there has been relatively less attention focused on understanding the role of strengths and resilience among this population (Courtney et al., 2010; Spinelli et al., 2020; 2021). A more limited focus on strengths may also be noticed in the service delivery process, where strengths-based practices may be less consistently incorporated into services with TAY, particularly when the needs of TAY appear to be so pressing. However, existing research suggests that youth transitioning out of child welfare demonstrate resilience across several areas of functioning (Daining & Depanfilis, 2007). It can also be argued that a focus on strengths is of critical importance when working with this age group, as they navigate the process of independence, transitioning from child-serving systems and into adulthood.  Providers have a vital role in not only helping TAY recover from the impact of trauma, but also in helping them to build their strengths and coping skills to support this transition into adulthood.  Recent research and practice-focused efforts with TAY suggest that trauma-informed practices are not limited to addressing trauma-related symptoms, but they also need to incorporate strategies and techniques that promote strengths and empower TAY (Daining & Depanfilis, 2007; Kisiel et al., 2020; 2021; Spinelli et al., 2020). Based on findings from a recent qualitative study that incorporated both provider and youth perspectives, Spinelli and colleagues (2020) identified how important it is that providers establish safety and trust in the context of their relationship with TAY; engage TAY in the process of planning and decision-making in an ongoing way; and establishing shared respect and level power dynamics in the relationship.  

Empowering Transition Age Youth through Documentary Film

Documentary films or other mixed media that promote narratives and storytelling with transition age youth can be a powerful tool for awareness-raising, empowerment, and systems change. Research has shown that child welfare policy does not always consider the lived experiences of the youth it seeks to serve. Rather it oftentimes focuses on changing clients’ attitudes and behaviors, rather than focusing on strengths-based approaches with youth and meaningful system change that can alter contexts, and ultimately improve client outcomes (Doucet et al., 2022). Thus, tools and approaches aimed at incorporating youth voice and empowering youth to be key stakeholders in their own decision-making processes can be influential in making policy changes that directly and positively impact and support youth.
One study found that providers, community members, and government officials were more likely to listen to youth when they advocated for the issues that impacted them in their community, leading to policy and practice changes (Haynes & Tanner, 2015). Narrative storytelling has also been found to lead to greater confidence and increased sense of empowerment for youth (Haynes & Tanner, 2015), and it can allow for opportunities of self-transformation and healing from these experiences (Doucet et al., 2022). Additionally, by giving young people the opportunity to speak freely, especially within systems where opportunities for this may be limited, such as child welfare or juvenile justice, it can help shift the narrative to strengths-focused (as opposed to deficits-based) practice and can create power sharing between young people and key stakeholders.
Understanding Transition Age Youth is a documentary film series that was produced by the Center for Child Trauma Assessment, Services & Systems Integration (CCTASSI) at Northwestern University in order to raise awareness about the unique trauma-related needs and strengths among TAY, and to amplify the stories and voices of young people within these systems. It is a four-part film series that highlights the experiences and perspectives of several system-involved youth who have transitioned out of child welfare and juvenile justice settings. By sharing their experiences and stories, these transition age youth offer powerful insights to the adults and providers within these systems that seek to support them; this can help support policy and practice changes within these settings. The stories of the young people in this film offer a powerful “call to action” for providers: highlighting concrete steps and strategies that providers (in a range of settings and roles) can use to become more trauma-informed and strengths-based in their work, to foster meaningful partnerships with these youth, and to empower and build resilience with these youth as they transition out of these systems and into adulthood. 

Resources for Supporting and Empowering TAY in Clinical Practice

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Transition Age Youth Collaborative Group recently developed a fact sheet for providers, entitled “Trauma-informed Guiding Principles for Working with Transition Age Youth: Provider Fact Sheet” (Kisiel et al., 2021; see NCTSN resource). This resource integrates recent research and practice application efforts, along with additional lessons learned offered by providers and young people.
An important part of this resource is describing the essential role that providers have in supporting resilience-building with TAY and identifying strategies and concrete actions that providers can incorporate into their trauma-informed work with TAY. There is a section focused on specific strategies and actions that providers can use to 1) Enhance physical and psychological safety with TAY; 2) Strengthen relationships between providers and TAY; and 3) Enhance internal assessments and strengths for TAY (Kisiel et al., 2021).
Additionally, the documentary film series described above, Understanding Transition Age Youth, is a useful educational resource for providers across a range of service settings. This can be a beneficial resource for young people, their caregivers, and families, offering psychoeducation about the needs and strengths of TAY, the experiences of TAY within these systems, and specific strategies that may be useful for empowering and building strengths with youth. By giving youth the space to share their stories, informing providers who work with them about the issues that impact them, and offering their own solutions, this can foster empathy and greater understanding for those viewing the film and working directly with TAY. This can also help to facilitate more trusting and collaborative relationships, all of which can result in positive identity development, and increased self-esteem and self-efficacy for TAY.
For more information and to access the Understanding Transition Age Youth documentary film series, other trauma-informed resources on TAY, and other public awareness films on complex trauma in youth, please visit: 
CCTASSI YouTube channel

About the Authors

Cassandra Kisiel, PhD is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Associate Director within the Mental Health Services and Policy Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is the Director of the Center for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Systems Integration, a longstanding, federally funded Center of the NCTSN that specializes in supporting trauma-informed, child-serving systems and in developing the infrastructure to understand and respond to the complex, developmental effects of childhood trauma. Her expertise and areas of clinical research are in complex trauma, with a focus on dissociation, resilience, strengths, and protective factors; trauma-informed assessment and evaluation; trauma-informed systems; and transition age youth. 

Uma Guarnaccia, MS is a Program Coordinator and Lab Manager at The Researching Inequity in Society Ecologically (RISE) Lab at New York University. She received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and worked as a graduate researcher at the Center for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Systems Integration. While there, she worked on various research projects related to trauma-informed trainings for staff in child-serving systems, the development and dissemination of resources on trauma, and the implementation of a trauma-informed therapy intervention for system-impacted women. 


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Kisiel C., Pauter S., Ocampo A., Stokes C., & Bruckner E. (2021). Trauma-informed guiding principles for working with transition age youth: Provider fact sheet. Los Angeles, CA and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
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Spinelli, T., Riley, T., St. Jean, N., Ellis, J., Bogard, J., & Kisiel, C. (2020). Transition Age Youth (TAY) needs assessment: Feedback from TAY and providers regarding TAY services, resources, and training. Child Welfare, Special Issue: Teen & Young Adults, 97(5), 89-116.
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