Growing interest and emerging evidence – how and why adolescent neglect is climbing the safeguarding agenda

10 July 2018

Phil RawsPhil Raws

The publication of Ofsted’s new report on responses to older children living with neglect – based on last year’s Joint Targeted Area Inspections – is an encouraging sign of increasing awareness of the importance of this issue.

The Children’s Society, working with Professor Mike Stein and Dr Gwyther Rees from the University of York, began a new programme of research in 2014 because of our concern that neglect as it affects young people aged 11-17, was not well-represented in research, or in policy or practice.

I’m pleased to say that the compass has begun to shift, despite the many challenges and complexities that neglect poses.

Our first study – Troubled Teens – published in 2016, piloted a new methodology for measuring adolescent neglect. In a nutshell, we looked at neglect by association, comparing the survey responses of a nationally representative sample of 14-15 year olds on the care and support they received at home with their answers to questions on subjective well-being, risk-taking and contextual aspects of their lives.

We found that young people experiencing lower caring inputs had more often reported negatively in response to the other questions than those experiencing higher levels of support, and that there were consistent patterns in the data showing where low input became neglectful. We asked about four types of care and support – educational, emotional, physical and supervisory – and discovered that different proportions of young people had different experiences of neglectful care. For example, 1 in 12 young people had been emotionally neglected and 15% of 14-15 year olds had experienced one or more forms of neglect during the past year.

There has been a lot of interest in our research, including from the Luton Safeguarding Children Board, who asked us to work with them to support the development and delivery of a pan-Bedfordshire neglect strategy. The Board was keen to boost awareness and understanding of adolescent neglect among professionals working in the area, to ensure that it is more readily identified, thoroughly assessed and more effectively responded to, and they felt that research evidence would help do all these things. 

Our report from the project – Thinking about adolescent neglect – will be of interest to other areas and to individuals who want to reflect on how they can improve their responses to neglect, particularly in the light of the Ofsted report. For those who prefer their information ‘bite-sized’ there is also an accompanying briefing for professionals which distils the findings into four pages. To write it we reviewed the available literature, focusing on articles and reports published since 2010 and interviewed professional stakeholders.

There are many gaps in the research, but we uncovered a small and growing body of evidence of the unique effects of neglect during adolescence. For example, a recently-published longitudinal study in Scotland found that teenagers who reported ‘neglectful and controlling’ parenting were more likely to go on to develop psychological disorders than their peers (Young, Lennie and Minnis, 2011). And a project in the United States (US), again using data collected over time, found that neglect in early adolescence predicted the onset of substance misuse disorders, while other forms of maltreatment had no effect (Lalayants and Prince, 2016).

This can be added to the burgeoning set of findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study – a ground breaking project in the US following a cohort of young people from their early teens to their early thirties – which began in the 1980s and continues to yield authoritative insights into the impacts of maltreatment. These include a recent paper on intergenerational perpetration and the power of nurturing relationships in adulthood to reduce risk (Thornberry et al, 2013). 

These studies are complemented by a recent Research in Practice Evidence Scope (Research in Practice, 2016) that explored the associations between neglect and sexual harm and abuse.

There is, then, increasingly compelling evidence of the potential harm resulting from adolescent neglect and, as our research demonstrated, this will likely be in addition to the concurrent harm suffered by young people who are being neglected now.

Fortunately the weight of research evidence, combined with fresh interest from Ofsted and other professional inspectorates, should help ensure that this issue moves up the agenda for anyone who has a role to play in safeguarding young people.       

About the author

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

Related Research in Practice resources

Research in Practice has a selection of resources intended to support the sector to build evidence-informed learning and development pathways in relation to child neglect.

Use the Research in Practice Neglect: Mapping Resource (open access).


Lalayants M and Prince J (2016) Child Neglect and Onset of Substance Abuse Disorders among Child Welfare-Involved Adolescents. Child Abuse Review, 25, 469-478.

Research in Practice (2016) Child neglect and its relationship to sexual harm and abuse: responding effectively to children's needs. Available online: www.rip.org.uk/resources/publications/evidence-scopes/child-neglect-and-its-relationship-to-sexual-harm-and-abuse-responding-effectively-to-childrens-needs-updated/

Raws P (2016) Troubled Teens: A study of the links between parenting and adolescent neglect. Available online: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/troubled-teens-a-study-of-the-links-between-parenting-and  

Thornberry T P, Henry K L, Smith C A, Ireland T O, Greenman S J and Lee R D (2013) Breaking the Cycle of Maltreatment: The Role of Safe, Stable and Nurturing Relationships. Available online: www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(13)00265-6/fulltext  

Young R, Lennie S and Minnis H (2011) Children’s perceptions of parental emotional neglect and control and psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52.8 889-897.

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