Unlocking Adolescent Potential: The Power of Family Support Amidst Childhood Adversities and poverty

Nicholas Adjei

Nicholas Kofi Adjei, Research Associate at the University of Liverpool, discusses the relationship between family adversities across the early life course and perceived emotional support in adolescence.

Adolescence — the bridge between childhood and adulthood, marked by transformation, discovery, and growth. In this journey, one cornerstone remains constant — the support of family. However, for many adolescents, this essential pillar is not always readily available.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the pivotal role of family support in public policy. National strategies aimed at enhancing outcomes for young people increasingly acknowledge family support as a cornerstone. For example, in the UK, the recent Children’s Commissioner report emphasizes the importance of nurturing strong and supportive families to provide the social and emotional backing essential for children and adolescents to thrive. Meanwhile, socioeconomic factors and family adversities, including poverty, may cast shadows over the quality of support young people receive, impacting their emotional well-being and overall development.

A recent study we conducted in the UK, commissioned by the Health Foundation, offers profound insights into this critical issue, shedding light on the intricate relationship between family adversities across the early life course and perceived emotional support in adolescence. Let’s delve into these findings and explore their implications for our broader society.

The study, drawing upon data on almost 11,000 children from the UK Millennium Cohort study, tracking children from 9 months to 14 years, reveals a sobering reality. More than 10% of adolescents in the UK report experiencing low perceived emotional support (i.e., care, safety, advice and having someone to talk to) by age 14. These statistics serve as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by young people in accessing the nurturing environment they need during this pivotal stage of life.

Furthermore, the study uncovers a clear socioeconomic gradient in the provision of emotional support (see figure) Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds report less emotional support than their more advantaged peers. These findings underscore the entrenched inequalities that persist within our society, highlighting the urgent need for collective action.

Two figures showing the prevalence of low emotional support by maternal education (on the left) and income quintile (on the right) in the UK Millennium Cohort Study at age 14.   Figure. Prevalence of low emotional support by maternal education and income quintile in the UK Millennium Cohort Study at age 14. See this page for an accessible table version of these charts.

Yet, the impact of socioeconomic inequalities extends beyond mere statistics. Adolescents navigating persistent poverty and family adversities face even greater hurdles. Whether grappling with parental mental health issues, domestic violence, or alcohol misuse, these adversities cast long shadows over the quality of support available to young people. The convergence of poverty and poor parental mental health emerges as particularly detrimental, amplifying the risk of strained parent-adolescent relationships and further exacerbating emotional distress.

So, where do we go from here? The findings of this study serve as a clarion call—a call to action that demands our collective attention and commitment. As a society, we must unite to create a nurturing environment where every adolescent feels supported and empowered to reach their full potential.

This begins with tackling the root causes of socioeconomic inequality head-on. We cannot expect young people to thrive when their fundamental needs remain unmet. Policies aimed at alleviating child poverty and providing comprehensive support for families facing adversity are not merely luxuries—they are imperatives that shape the foundation of our society’s future.

About the author

Nicholas Kofi Adjei is a Research Associate in the Department of Public Health, Policy, and Systems at the University of Liverpool. His research focuses on childhood disadvantages and their implications for people’s present and future health. He is currently the Principal Investigator for a Health Foundation project that focuses on social disadvantage, family support, and young people’s mental health in the UK.

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