Posted: 07 July 2015

16 and 17 year olds are caught between childhood and adulthood


Being 16-17 is known as the awkward age. It’s when you can make your first independent important choices, develop new relationships and seek new experiences. Young people with the support from caring families will often negotiate the experiences of moving into adulthood very well.

Sadly, for those who are 16-17 and do not have the support of a loving family, or whose needs are so great that their family can not cope on their own, this age is seriously awkward - as children find themselves at increased risk of harm while get very little or no help that may stop completely once they turn 18.

Our new Seriously Awkward campaign calls for better protection for vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds.

What risks do 16 and 17 year olds tell us they face?

Last week we featured Luke's story - if you haven't ready his story, please do. Despite dangers in his life, Luke, 17, was being let down when he needed support the most.

From our work with many older teenagers across the country, we know that Luke's story isn't isolated. While each 16 and 17 year old's story is very different there are some common risks running through them.

In our new report we explore some of the risks these 16 and 17 year olds face, including the importance of protective family relationships, well-being and future aspirations, as well as the negative effects of poverty and risks outside the home.

Protective family relationships

For many vulnerable teenagers not having a relationship with a significant adult in their lives is a risk factor. And 16 and 17 year olds are more likely to be assessed by children’s services as ‘children in need’ because of abuse and neglect they experience in family.

Yet half of the 16 and 17 year olds we polled for our Seriously Awkward report identified support from the families as the key factor that helps them withstand the pressures they face.

Health and well-being

A significant number of 16 and 17 year olds we polled reported that they often or always feel the range of negative emotions, revealing that transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a period of heightened anxiety.

Our poll revealed that: 

  • 1 in 4 feel sad or low
  • 1 in 3 are anxious or worried
  • 1 in 5 feel distressed or panicked

Mental health problems also increase as adolescents grow up. Yet 16 and 17 year olds and their parents identified that they do not have enough information on mental health. And for the most vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds who require specialist support, we know that there are not enough services and in many areas 16 and 17 year olds are falling between adults' and children’s services.

Risks outside the home

While most 16 and 17 year olds do not report feeling under pressure to engage in activities such as drinking and taking drugs, for those who report feeling under pressure, that pressure is significant, and often comes from peers and school friends.

Our report also highlights new pressures that older teenagers today feel, those related to life online. Six percent of 16 and 17 year olds we polled reported feeling pressure to take and send explicit pictures of themselves and that pressure coming mostly from people they got to know online.

Poverty and inequality

Our poll findings indicated that 16 and 17 year olds from the poorest backgrounds were nearly three times less likely than children from wealthiest families to be happy with their life overall. They are also less likely to report feeling safe in school in other places in their communities.

Future aspirations

Our poll shows that 16 and 17 year olds from poor backgrounds are considerably less likely to be positive about their future prospects. 

Half a million 16 and 17 year olds

We estimate that across the UK there may be as many as 500,000 young people who experience difficulties in different areas of their lives and would need some help to help them overcome these.

We also estimate that around 60,000 face a high number of risks factors and need help to stay safe.

Yet that help is not available either because there is not enough services or because professionals believe that older teenagers can cope on their own. Or because there are significant gaps in the law that allow them to fall through the cracks.

You can make a difference – join Seriously Awkward

We launched Seriously Awkward because we believe that children like Luke need to be offered the help they need to be protected and supported to become successful adults in the future.

We are calling on the Government to change the laws that fall short of offering 16 and 17 year olds the same protection as to children under 16. Like allowing the police to intervene and prevent exploitative adults from targeting Luke again.

If you agree with us, please sign our petition.

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

Read more

Luke's story: Something isn't quite right

Posted: 2 July 2015