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Breaking the silence – students without family support

By QMAdvice 29 Sep 2021

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This blog was written by Ben Priest, a Psychodynamic Counsellor working in the Advice and Counselling Service at Queen Mary.

We usually celebrate resilience. From the tv talent show contestant with the moving back-story to the successful entrepreneur who grew up in poverty, it seems we love to hear about those who thrive and succeed against all odds. Yet research shows that there are resilient and independent students who fear they will be stigmatised because of their experience.

In this article, we consider the experience of those students who are studying independently, without family support, and we announce the Independent Students Support Group, a safe, confidential space for students in this position to talk and support each other.

Extra Challenges

Not every student has supportive parents. In fact, research from the charity StandAlone (1) shows that 1 in 5 families in the UK will be affected by estrangement, a situation in which an adult, often a young adult, is forced to distance themselves from family or a family member, or sometimes a young person might find themselves excluded by the rest of the family. Either way, this often means there is no support from family, no close, functional family experience.

Over 5 million people in the UK have had to cut contact with at least one family member and estrangement often occurs in late teens or early adulthood, around the time of final school exams or university.

Whilst it’s important to remember that no two experiences of estrangement are the same, causes might include: abuse, particularly emotional abuse; rejection of LGBTQI, transgender or non-binary gender identities; clashes of values and beliefs; conflict about family roles; issues related to forced marriage; ‘honour-based violence; or for some students the decision to pursue higher education opportunities can, in itself, be a cause of estrangement. Estrangement confronts these students with an extra set of challenges at university, both emotional and financial.

Also, these extra challenges are often faced by another group, students who have previously been in foster care, or have another experience of care during childhood or teenage years. In the year 2018-19 just 6% of those with care experience were known to be in higher education (2), this group of students have had to overcome significant challenges to get here and, like most students, they see university as a new chapter.

Unhelpful Reactions

Of course, despite the good times (and the hype), university can be a difficult experience for anyone and every student deserves support when they need it, whether that be from friends, university staff or others. None of us can feel independent or resilient all of the time. The trouble is, for students who lack family support, it can be particularly difficult to get support when they need it.

Take the friendly heart-to-heart, that staple of emotional support. We go to our friends with our problems hoping we will find understanding and acceptance. Yet research (3) shows that 68% of estranged adults feel that here is a stigma attached to estrangement and that, whilst most reported helpful support from close friends and partners, there can be unhelpful reactions. Some of the most hurtful responses can be dismissive: ‘I’m sure it will all work out in the end’; blaming or denying the problem: ‘You should forgive him, you’ve only got one father’; or avoidance: awkward silence, changing the subject.

Research on care-leavers at university (4) suggests that, although 70% reported that they found it easy making friends they may also find it difficult to share their experience. 55% found it uncomfortable sharing their background with fellow students, while 20% would not confide in close friends at university. When everyone is talking about their family there can be a tendency to stay quiet and there can also be a fear of being labelled or identified solely by the care experience.

A Listening Ear

Sometimes difference is invisible and, whilst we may want that difference to be acknowledged, we may not want to be defined by it. Or when we are presented with a friend’s different, perhaps painful, the experience we may not know what to say.

The good news is we don’t always need to know what to say. If you have a friend who is not supported by their family and they tell you about it they are not asking for your opinions or your judgement of the situation and they’re not telling you because they want to be your ‘estranged’ or ‘care-experienced’ friend. They’re telling you because they trust you and they want you to listen and understand. That’s all you need to do and, if you can do that, you’ll be helping your friend.

Although it’s also important to remember that, when it comes to difficult experiences, we don’t always feel like talking about it. If you are someone who does not experience support from family it is, of course, completely up to you what you choose to reveal to others.

Whenever you do choose to tell someone we hope you will find a listening ear. And if you would like to discuss university life with students who share similar experiences we hope you will be interested in our Independent Students Support Group.

A Support Group for Independent Students at Queen Mary

The Independent Students Support Group aims to provide a space for students who are studying without family support to meet together, share experiences of university life and support each other. If you are care-experienced or estranged from family and you would like a safe, confidential space to talk to others with similar experiences this group is for you.

Support groups, in which members both give and receive support, can help participants to feel more connected and more resilient. We will provide a confidential, facilitated space where students can share the challenges of university life, listen and support each other.

This group provided by the Queen Mary Advice And Counselling Service will run for 12 weekly sessions on Tuesdays, 11.30am-12.30pm on MS Teams, with a maximum of 8 participants.

The provisional dates for the group are: 2nd November to 14th December 2021 and 11th January to 8th February 2022 (every Tuesday).

How to sign up: If you would like to join the group please complete a short form at facilitators will be in touch soon to arrange an individual appointment to discuss the group with you.

Further support at Queen Mary

You may want a space to talk individually about your problems. If you find personal issues are having an impact on student life or studies you can speak, in confidence, to a counsellor. If you need confidential, practical and financial support, you can contact a Welfare Adviser.

You can contact us easily by filling in our web enquiry form and we will get back to you as soon as possible. You can also find other links, below, to useful resources and organisations.

Your Place

Whoever you are, whatever your background or your experience of care, we hope you find your place here at Queen Mary. We hope you can enjoy your independence, continue to develop your resilience and gain strength from support and understanding when you need it.

Further resources