Posted: 29 November 2016

A lack of attention

Is neglect of adolescents an important issue?

When social workers make an assessment for a Child Protection Plan they can select from four categories – emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect or sexual abuse.  For adolescents they most often choose ‘neglect’. 

When researchers ask teenagers about their experiences of maltreatment at home they most often say they have been neglected.

But if you looked at all the research studies related to the safeguarding of young people you might be surprised at how little the topic of neglect has been studied and the same is true of policy development around this age-group. Responding to neglect is missing.

So why has this subject had such little attention? 

It may result from a view that neglect was not harmful to ‘older’ children.  Many adults – including professionals who work with them – think that teenagers are naturally resilient and can cope with life’s challenges.  But we are increasingly learning how much of a myth this is.  Look for example, at the numbers of young people who are now being diagnosed with mental illnesses.  

It may have been because there was a consensus that abuse had more damaging impacts on young people’s lives than neglect.  But research is beginning to show that neglect can be just as harmful.

Or it may be that adolescent neglect is seen as being too complex and difficult to define.  This has meant that the focus in research and policy has usually been on young children.  And the few studies which have included adolescents are hard to make sense of, because many different definitions of neglect have been used

What is The Children’s Society doing about this? 

Our researchers, working with colleagues from the University of York, wondered whether we should respond to these challenges and begin to fill the vacuum of knowledge around adolescent neglect.  We had found in our research over many years – exploring issues like running away from home, substance misuse, or being a young carer – that parental neglect often featured in disadvantaged young people’s lives.

We began to look more closely at adolescent neglect – for example, being commissioned in 2009 by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education) to conduct a literature review - and when we asked staff from our ‘youth at risk’ services they confirmed that parental neglect was part of the background context for most of the young people they work with.

So we decided that it was time to focus on adolescent neglect. 

Time to focus on adolescent neglect

The first report from our new research programme ‘Understanding Adolescent Neglect – Troubled Teens: A study of the links between parenting and adolescent neglect’ was published today.  We tested out a new way to define and measure neglect, and generated findings on how many 14 and 15 year olds in England experience neglect, based on what they had said about their involvement in risk-taking (like getting drunk or truanting) and about their well-being … which was, for the majority, significantly lower than for young people who were cared for and supported by their parents.

We hope our research will inform a fresh debate about adolescent neglect and underpin improvements in responses to neglect to ensure that families are better supported and fewer young people experience neglect at home in the future.  


By Phil Raws - Research team

Read more about our Troubled Teens Report

Read more about our Understanding Adolescent Neglect: Troubled Teens Report