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Adolescent Neglect

Are we pro-active in spotting the signs of adolescent neglect?

It is rarely acknowledged that, just like younger children, adolescents are more likely to experience neglect at home than any other form of child abuse. This briefing is aimed at improving knowledge, understanding and confidence around identifying and responding to adolescent neglect.

A young person who is being neglected at home will engage with a range of agencies over time, providing many opportunities to intervene and, potentially, to prevent further neglect. Support at relatively low levels could help reinvigorate or strengthen how parents go about their role, and work to improve communications and relationships at home can mitigate the risk of neglect re-occurring.

It is paramount that professionals, who work with adolescents, or the parents/carers of adolescents are alert to the possibility that neglect at home, may be happening and, when appropriate, to:

  • exercise 'professional curiosity' by asking questions which could reveal signs of neglect
  • involve others - including colleagues from other agencies in assessing the seriousness of the situation and analysing presenting risk

Taking the initiative where there are signs of neglect - including making a referral to early help services, and if necessary, to children's social care - is key to successful work to mitigate and prevent neglect, and to avoid the potential for serious harm to develop.

Practitioners may also need to bear in mind that neglect can be acute or chronic. Neglect is usually seen as being made-up of a combination of different aspects of poor care and support over time - but individual events can also signal neglect.

Neglect is more likely when:

  • issues such as substance misuse, mental or physical ill health or domestic abuse can reduce parenting capacity
  • a separation, divorce or the introduction of a new partner (and maybe their children) to the family can lead to neglect, the onset of illness, or a bereavement can all reduce parents' capacity to provide adequate care and support
  • when a young person and their family have few options for support from extended family, neighbours, friends or school, there can be a higher likelihood of neglect
  • a young person's activities outside the home (such as involvement in offending or anti-social behaviour) can have a negative effect on relationships with parents and lead to a decrease in support over time

There are also particular characteristics or contexts which can make neglect more likely:

  • disabled young people are more likely to experience neglect
  • boys are more likely to be neglected in terms of supervision and monitoring
  • becoming 'older' - the transition through adolescence may mean that parents give less emotional support
  • living in a more affluent family may also link to experiencing more emotional neglect

It is difficult to give a definitive list of signs of adolescent neglect because the different forms of neglect will have varying effects – but some of the indicators can include:

  • becoming isolated from peers: being bullied
  • being non-communicative, tiredness, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation
  • anger, aggression and violence
  • a young person being outside or away from home late at night; being involved in anti-social behaviour, substance misuse and other risk-taking
  • early 'consensual' sexual activity; teen pregnancy and birth
  • hunger, lack of personal hygiene, etc. (outward signs of physical neglect, although, equally, these may be the result of poverty)

There has been a tendency in research and practice to downplay the importance of neglect, particularly the neglect of adolescents. This has partly been based on misconceptions that adolescents become resilient to neglect and that neglect is less harmful than other forms of abuse. But even the limited research that has been done gives ample reason to treat neglect as seriously as the different forms of abuse and to acknowledge the vulnerability of all young people, regardless of their age.

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