Here is our second blog related to neglect- the most prevalent form of child maltreatment. In this edition, we explore the concept of Adolescent Neglect. For more information, please have a look at our Neglect webpage and sign up for our Introduction to Neglect and Adolescent Neglect training courses.
"Shaz is a 14-year-old female. She lives with her mother and her younger brother. At points, her father has lived in the family home, but her parents’ relationship has been characterised by conflict and multiple separations. At 13, Shaz began displaying sexualised behaviour at school and was excluded on three occasions for fighting. A few months ago, she disclosed that she had engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse with an older male. Shaz has also recently been arrested for shoplifting."
When reading the above, did you consider that neglect might be at the root of Shaz’s behaviour? Adults tend to associate neglect with young children, but it affects children of all ages and is often under identified and misunderstood for adolescents (Growing up Neglected: A multi-agency response to older children, 2018). In a study of serious case reviews in the UK, 18% of those fatally or seriously maltreated were older than 14 years and experienced neglect (Child Protection Evidence: Systematic reviews of teenage neglect, 2022).
Here are two important questions to consider in relation to the neglect of adolescents are:
Neglect is when a child’s care needs are not met. So as a child enters adolescence, what care needs do they have? And where does their own autonomy and agency meet a parent’s responsibility? It might be helpful to revisit Jan Horwath's forms of neglect and consider what each of these might mean for an adolescent. For example, supervisory neglect might entail a child being allowed to go out whenever and with whomever they want, with no attempts to ensure the child’s safety. Physical neglect could include a young person not being provided with resources required to maintain good personal hygiene. And so on.
Our needs change significantly between the start of puberty and early adulthood. Therefore a healthy parent-adolescent relationship should change too (increasing in autonomy and opportunities for meaningful contribution and decreasing in control as the young person matures). But parents still play a critical care role in their child's life during adolescence, especially in providing warmth, connection, boundaries, guidance and access to essential items. We must ensure that the increased autonomy of the young person does not detract from our recognition of these ongoing care needs.
Obviously, the indicators are wide ranging and depend on factors such as the type, severity and frequency of the neglect as well as the child's age and any existing protective factors. But the following are regularly reported as concerns linked to neglected young people: running away from home, misusing substances, offending or antisocial behaviour, gang involvement, vulnerability to criminal and sexual exploitation, concerning sexual behaviour, mental health issues, vulnerability to being bullied and problems with school engagement (Troubled Teens, 2016). But do we always make the link between such behaviour and neglect? Experience and research would suggest not. This therefore leads to neglect being under reported, and ineffectively responded to.
The first thing we must ensure is that ALL school staff understand what neglect may look like for young people and respond accordingly. Neglect must be actively considered. Doing so will mean we improve our identification of neglect in adolescents and can then offer better support and improved responses to young people.
Neglect is often chronic and so when it is identified in adolescence, is regularly accompanied by trauma ("a distressing event or events that are so extreme or intense that they overwhelm a person's ability to cope, resulting in lasting negative impact" - UK Trauma Council). Understanding trauma and how this affects brain functioning is vital, so that we can see and have compassion for how a child is behaving and feeling as a result of their experiences. Sadly, neglected young people can be frequently blamed for their behaviour, misdiagnosed and/or misunderstood because professionals do not have a trauma informed approach, and therefore have not recognised the lived experience of the child. When we adopt a trauma informed approach in schools, we are able to avoid the re-traumatisation of the child and offer support and skills which can start to heal them, by building their sense of safety, trust in adults and eventually empower them to move forward with their lives.
To help you: