Adolescent Neglect: Time for researchers to up our game

  • Phil Raws
  • 09 May 2018
  • Posted in: Health & Social Care

Children are far more likely to experience parental neglect than they are to suffer any form of abuse.  Data from our child protection system shows this consistently and research paints a similar picture – as well as highlighting just how many victims are not identified and supported by children’s social care departments.

But what is often forgotten is that this is as true for adolescents as it is for younger children. Research studies suggest that between 13-18% of children aged 11-17 experience neglect.[i]

This should be a concern for us all as there is increasing evidence of just how harmful parental neglect can be for this age group.  Using longitudinal methodologies (where data is collected at different points over time) new studies are emerging that show a higher likelihood of substance misuse, engaging in risky sexual behaviours (and, for girls, giving birth in their teens), or developing psychiatric disorders for young people neglected during their adolescence.

These findings highlight the potential for a combination of neglectful parenting and a natural propensity towards risk-taking – a normal part of adolescence – to compound a young person’s vulnerability.  Perhaps most worryingly this can manifest itself in exposure to risk outside the home.  A recent review suggested that there are strong links between adolescent neglect and child sexual exploitation[ii] and a major U.S. study – which kept abreast of the lives of around 1,000 young people from their early teens to their early thirties (the Rochester Youth Development Study) – found that neglect in adolescence increases the likelihood of involvement in violent crime (amongst a range of negative outcomes).[iii] 

In the light of this it is unfortunate that such little attention has been focused on neglect.  Although there are signs that this has begun to change the main focus has been on new initiatives targeting the neglect of younger children.

So why have we been slow to acknowledge and address the issue of adolescent neglect?  Could it be because many professionals assume that teenagers have a ‘natural resilience’ (as research by The Children’s Society has shown[iv])?  Or that it has been felt that neglect is less harmful than other forms of maltreatment?  Perhaps another reason could be that our society remains ambivalent about young people’s need for ongoing support throughout the gradual transition to independence, often preferring to see those who exhibit problematic externalising behaviours as ‘troublesome’ rather than ‘troubled’.

Whatever the reasons researchers must shoulder part of the blame.  Piecemeal advances in knowledge mask a failure by academics to get to grips with the study of neglect, as those surveying the field have commented – ‘the research literature to date (has been) characterised by a high level of inconsistency in terms of definitions, categorisations and measures of child neglect that has hampered progress.’[v] More damningly, the authors of an international meta-review asserted that ‘studies on prevalence of neglect were bi-products rather than a primary interest.’[vi]

Practitioners and policymakers know only too well how complex neglect is, and how challenging it can be to work with adolescents, but if researchers can’t provide support and insights to break down this complexity then the likelihood of more effective responses remains remote.

That’s why The Children’s Society, working with colleagues at the University of York, has begun a programme to develop fresh ways to define and study adolescent neglect.  We’ve published two research reports so far (you can find them on our website – https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/research/understanding-adolescent-neglect ) and, although there’s plenty to do, we hope that our work will help to redress the neglect of adolescent neglect.

 

[i]  e.g. Radford, L et al (2011)  Child abuse and neglect in the UK.  London: Barnardos;                  Raws, P (2016) Troubled Teens: A study of the links between parenting and adolescent neglect.  London: The Children’s Society.

[ii]  Hanson E (2016) Exploring the relationship between neglect and child sexual exploitation: Evidence scope 1. Dartington, Research in Practice.

[iii]   A number of articles have been published based on analysis of the RYDS dataset – e.g.

Thornberry, TP et al. (2010) ‘The causal impact of childhood-limited maltreatment and adolescent maltreatment on early adult adjustment.’  Journal of Adolescent Health 46, 4, 359-365.

[iv]  Rees, G et al (2010) Safeguarding Young People: Responding to young people aged 11-17 who are maltreated.  London: The Children’s Society.

[v]  Rees, G et al. (2011) Adolescent Neglect: Research, policy and practice.  London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[vi] Stoltenborgh, M, Bakermans-Kranenburg, M and van Ijzendoorn MH (2013) The neglect of child neglect: a meta-analytic review of the prevalence of neglect.  Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48, 3, 345-355.

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  • Article Author

About Phil Raws

Phil Raws is a Senior Researcher at The Children's Society leading a comprehensive research programme on neglect of adolescents in partnership with the University of York. His report Troubled Teens describes a new way to measure neglect and exposes the scale of neglectful parenting of teenagers in homes across the country. The report discusses our …