Adolescent neglect – no longer a Cinderella subject

09 January 2017

Image: Phil RawsPhil Raws

As Senior Researcher at The Children’s Society I have been doing studies on the issues affecting young people for more than 20 years. Prior to this I was a social work assistant and have also worked in children’s homes and with care leavers.

I’m lucky to be in a team which often conducts research in partnership with colleagues at the University of York, and together we have looked at topics including young runaways, children’s wellbeing and safeguarding. This body of research has allowed us not only to consider particular issues in depth, but also to identify themes which resonate across the lives of disadvantaged young people.

A particular issue which often surfaces in our research – perhaps not surprisingly – is the poor level of parental care and support which forms the backdrop to the other difficulties young people have, or the challenging behaviours they present.

But what is surprising is the rarity of academic studies specifically focused on parental neglect, in particular, the neglect of adolescents. The authors of a recent international meta-analysis to establish prevalence were moved to comment on this, saying that ‘studies on prevalence of neglect were by-products rather than a primary interest’ because most research focuses on emotional, physical or sexual abuse (Stoltenborgh et al, 2013).

This is even more surprising when one considers the limited, but powerful, evidence of the scale and consequences of adolescent neglect.

The landmark NSPCC study on prevalence rates of child maltreatment in the UK (Radford et al, 2011) showed that neglect was the most common form of intra-familial maltreatment for adolescents by some margin, and figures for Child Protection Plan registrations have consistently presented a similar picture in terms of the official identification of neglect of older children. International research shows the same patterns in high-income countries across the world (Gilbert et al, 2009).

And research from the US – most notably analyses from the Rochester Youth Development Study – has shown how neglect in adolescence links to poor outcomes during this period of the life-course and into early adulthood (eg, Thornberry et al, 2010).

So why has adolescent neglect been ignored for the most part in academic research?  Amongst other reasons, it may be because it has (wrongly) been felt that young people naturally become more resilient as they grow older (Hicks and Stein, 2013). Perhaps more insidiously it may be that the concept of ‘neglect’ is regarded as being too difficult to pin down – with the few studies that have been done adopting different ways of defining it, or not defining it all and assuming that a consensus on its meaning must exist (see Rees et al, 2011, for a discussion of problems with definition and research methodology).

Whatever the reasons, we felt it was time to begin to fill the vacuum of research in this area. The first study in our new programme – Troubled Teens: A study of the links between parenting and adolescent neglect – explains how we have trialled a new approach to defining and measuring adolescent neglect.

Because we are keen to build a better conceptualisation we decided not to ask closed questions which pre-defined neglect, but instead to try to measure neglect by association. To do this we developed a new measure of experiences of parenting behaviours to include in a survey. This was administered online to a representative sample of around 2,000 students in Years 8 and 10 in schools across England. Then, by comparing young people’s reports on how often their parents or carers had done a variety of things to care for or support them with their answers to other questions (eg, on their involvement in risk-taking behaviour, their subjective wellbeing and health), we tested the hypothesis that lower caring input would link to more problems or negative issues for a respondent … and found that this held true.

By exploring the data more we could see where less parenting input (in relation to  educational support, emotional support, physical care or supervision) made a significant difference to how young people responded to our other questions – and identify when parenting was so infrequent that it became neglectful.

This assessment was then used to look in detail at how many 14 and 15 year olds would be classified as being ‘neglected’ – eg, around 15% were found to have experienced one or more forms of neglect – and at how different many neglected 14 and 15 year olds’ lives were from peers who were cared for by their parents (eg, more than twice as many emotionally neglected young people said they had got drunk recently, or had truanted from school).

This is the first step in a long journey to research this subject, but we think it’s a good start and a helpful way to begin to break the issues down and prompt reflections on the complexity of adolescent neglect and the need to improve policy and service responses to better address it.

About the author(s)

Phil Raws is Senior Researcher at The Children’s Society.


Related resources

Troubled Teens: A study of the links between parenting and adolescent neglect

Child neglect and its relationship to sexual harm and abuse - responding effectively to children’s needs: Evidence Scopes

That difficult age – developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence: Evidence Scope

Adolescent mental health: Frontline Briefing

Emotional abuse and neglect – Identifying and responding in practice with families: Frontline Briefing

Turning the corner on child neglect: Blog

Making a difference to child neglect


Gilbert R, Fluke J, O’Donnell M, Gonzalez-Izquierdo A, Brownell M, Gulliver P, Janson S and Sidebotham P (2012) ‘Child maltreatment: variation in trends and policies in six developed countries’. The Lancet 379 758–72. Available online: http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(11)61087-8.pdf 

Hicks L and Stein M (2013) ‘Understanding and working with adolescent neglect: perspectives from research, young people and professionals’. Child and Family Social Work 20 (2) 223-233.

Radford L, Corral S, Bradley C, Fisher H, Bassett C, Howat N and Collishaw S (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC. Available online: http://www.crin.org/en/docs/1323_child_abuse_neglect_research_PDF_wdf84181_original.pdf  

Rees G, Stein M, Hicks L and Gorin S (2011) Adolescent Neglect: Research, Policy and Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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. Available online: http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/972/art%253A10.1007%252Fs00127-012-0549-y.pdf?originUrl=http%3A%2F%2Flink.springer.com%2Farticle%2F10.1007%2Fs00127-012-0549-y&token2=exp=1456685111~acl=%2Fstatic%2Fpdf%2F972%2Fart%25253A10.1007%25252Fs00127-012-0549-y.pdf%3ForiginUrl%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Flink.springer.com%252Farticle%252F10.1007%252Fs00127-012-0549-y*~hmac=fa1bfba36c191235adf6d9ae22a0eabe1b93d45b70776cbf3925c89ddc033287

Thornberry TP, Henry KL, Ireland TO, and Smith CA (2010) ‘The causal impact of childhood-limited maltreatment and adolescent maltreatment on early adult adjustment’. Journal of Adolescent Health 46 (4) 359-365.

Share this page