Troubled teens

teenage years are often a source of crisis for children and parents alike. But
services for troubled adolescents and their families are thin on the ground.
Frances Rickford examines why.

her 13th birthday Katie went out for the evening with a girlfriend. Her mother
had given her permission, on condition she was home by 10 pm. She turned up at
3.30 am, drunk, and unable to say where she’d been or what she’d been doing.
From that day on, according to her mother, Katie was out of control. She
attended school only sporadically, she went missing for days at a time, she was
implacably hostile and sometimes threatening to her mother and younger
siblings. Her mother, herself a teacher, approached every agency she could
think of for help but got none. Her local social services department told her
they would do nothing unless Katie herself asked for support or accommodation,
or if there was an allegation of abuse or neglect. Four years on Katie has no
educational qualifications, though she is happily alive and getting on much
better with her family. But in the meantime her mother believes she was at
serious risk of harm, and that her family were placed under an intolerable

are not alone. A Mori poll of parents for the National Family and Parenting Institute
carried out this year showed that the teenage years were the most difficult for
parents. Nearly one in three – the highest proportion – said they found their
children’s early teenage years (11 to 14) difficult, compared to 8 per cent who
said the first year was difficult.

despite the high proportion of parents having problems with their teenage
children, services to support teenagers and their families are thin on the
ground. The recent national mapping exercise of family support services, also
carried out for the National Family and Parenting Institute, found that there
was much more available support for families with young children than for those
with older children or teenagers. Families of children who are under five are
twice as likely to be targeted by family support services as those with
children from five and 10 years, and three times as likely as those where
children are between 11 and 15.2

findings are borne out by the government’s recently published statistics on
children in need 3. Figures for England show that, although
teenagers are over-represented among children in the looked after system, they
are under-represented when it comes to support by social services in the
community. Under fives represent 16 per cent of children looked after, but 33
per cent of those supported in their families. Ten to 15 year olds represent 42
per cent of looked after children, but just 23 per cent of those supported at
home (see table).

Age      Child’n
looked after (%)           Child’n supp’ted
in famil’s or indep’dtly (%)
0 – 4    20                                            33
5 – 9   23                                            21
10-14   33                                            23       
15 +     25                                            19
Department of Health. Figures do not add up to 100% due to rounding.

course it makes sense to invest heavily in preventive services for young
children, and to work hard to keep them in their own families where possible
rather than commit them to substitute care. Many teenagers come into care
because they have been rejected and excluded by their families, so local
authorities have little choice but to accommodate them. Teenagers coming into
the care system probably represent the tip of a large iceberg of disaffected,
angry and isolated young people, like Katie, who without help are heading for
educational failure, compromised physical and mental health and social exclusion.

exclusions are falling, but there are still about 7,000 young people
permanently excluded from secondary schools each year in England. About one in
six children have run away from home at least once by the time they reach 16
and of those more than half will have stayed away for at least a night. One
"runaway" in five, according to one study, was in fact forced to
leave their family home.

why are services to help families cope with challenging teenagers – and to help
teenagers themselves negotiate better relationships at home – so scarce? Jane
Tunstill, professor of social work at Royal Holloway College, University of
London, believes the reasons are mainly ideological and logistical.

children look less vulnerable to being killed by adults in their family than
little ones and our children’s services are very dominated by the child
protection machine. Also teenagers can remove themselves from services they
don’t see as relevant so perhaps statutory services face a challenge in developing
unconventional ways of working which engage teenagers.

I suspect the fear that teenagers instil in adults is also a factor in our
failure to deal with them. The tragedy is if teenagers attract services only
once they’ve been defined as delinquents or criminals."

not just local authorities who are neglecting the needs of troubled
adolescents. On the government’s own admission child and adolescent mental
health services are patchy in terms both of availability and quality. The
Children’s Fund could potentially be used to fill some gaps in support for
teenagers and their families, but it’s not just a question of money. As
Tunstill points out, to be of any use at all services for teenagers have to be
acceptable to teenagers, and to be perceived as helpful to the problems they
feel they are facing. Whether there is enough interest and energy to find out
from young people what those services might look like remains to be seen.

NFPI/Mori, Listening to Parents: Their Worries, Their Solutions, 2001.

Clem Henricson, Ilan Katz et al, National Mapping of Family Services in
England and Wales
(a consultation document), National Family and Parenting

Department of Health, Children in Need in England, 2000. See 


is a Children’s Society project based just outside Bournemouth and funded
jointly by Bournemouth and Poole social services departments. The project works
with young people aged 13 to 17 and their families, referred by social services
at the point when local authority accommodation is being considered. Project
leader Ginette Oubridge explains: "We offer a very intensive service at
the point of crisis, when there is a heightened potential for change in the

workers meet with the young person and the parents – preferably together – and
use a technique called solution-focused brief therapy. Family members are
encouraged to identify what the difficult issues are, to recall a time when
they did not have the problems they now have, where they want to get to in the
future, and how to reach that goal. The project also has a four-bedded
residential unit where young people can stay for up to 28 days, and offers a
24-hour telephone support service to parents.

than a third (38 per cent) of the young people coming through the project are living
in stepfamilies, and 28 per cent just with their birth mother. Violence and
intimidation by young people towards adults or other children in their family
is a common feature, with two thirds of families identifying physical or verbal
aggression as a serious issue.

does not see the purpose of the project as keeping all young people out of
accommodation. "There are some young people who are not going to get what
they need at home and are going to need accommodation. Our job is to make sure
they don’t enter care for want of a preventive service – to act as a filter."

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