Tackling the issue of teenage abusive relationships

Mark Bowles

Mark Bowles is the director of The Training Effect. He has worked extensively in the public sector as a practitioner, manager and commissioner. Mark’s work focuses on drugs, alcohol, risk-taking behaviour, families with complex needs, emotional health and wellbeing.

The Training Effect’s Risk-Avert programme, developed in partnership with Essex County Council, can identify those young people who are more likely to take negative risks in later life. The programme delivers cognitive behaviour interventions to help them avoid or manage those risks and is being rolled out to local authorities, academies and independent schools across the UK.

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Teenage romantic relationships can often be short-lived but powerful, with adolescents experiencing high-intensity feelings and emotions. Sometimes, a young person’s lack of experience in adult relationships can result in abusive behaviour being overlooked or ignored should it occur.

Understanding teenage relationships

Domestic abuse is often viewed as an ‘adult’ issue – something that happens between two people who are, or have been, in an intimate relationship. However, violence in teenage relationships is a subject of increasing concern amongst teaching professionals.

Indeed, intimate partner violence among young people has been highlighted as ‘an understudied area of maltreatment in the UK’, and this omission has significantly hampered the development of theoretical understanding and effective prevention programmes1.

Research shows that the prevalence of relationship violence is higher in adolescents than in adults, with females between 12-18 years having the highest victimisation rate2.

Furthermore, the NSPCC’s 2009 paper: ‘Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships’, collected survey responses from 1,353 young people aged between 13 and 17 years old and conducted qualitative interviews with 62 girls and 29 boys. It found that 18 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls reported some form of physical partner violence.

While limited in its size, this study, “The NSPCC found found that 18 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls reported some form of physical partner violence.”along with others, does indicate that adolescent dating violence is a potentially significant child welfare problem in the UK.

What can schools do to address this?

Risk factors

Teens involved in dating violence are at higher risk of further violence in future relationships, riskier sexual behaviour4 and increased rates of substance use and eating disorders3.

If teens have previously experienced parental domestic abuse, physical or sexual abuse or are part of violent peer groups, they are far more likely to dismiss this type of behaviour as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’. This leaves them at risk of being subject to, or indeed, committing the abuse.

While less researched, it appears that parental neglect, especially lack of supervision and involvement/interest in their teenage children’s lives, also impacts negatively on young people’s vulnerability to partner violence4, although what constitutes “neglect” for adolescents still has to be fully explored within the research literature5.

Early warning signs

It is important for all teachers and school staff to look out for early warning signs a young person may display if they’re experiencing abuse. These signs include:

  • Changes in mood or personality.
  • Use of drugs or alcohol where there was no prior use.
  • Withdrawal from their peer group and /or isolation from their family.
  • Depression.
  • Physical injury or illness.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Self harm.

However, it is not just physical and mental indicators that teachers should look out for. How is the young person’s school work and education being affected? Has their attitude towards education or schooling changed? Are they less focussed in lessons, late or even truant?

Spotting signs of behaviour change is an important step towards early intervention.

Safeguarding students – what can schools and teachers do?

The expansion of intervention programmes related to the teaching of consent specifically and healthy relationships more generally should be welcomed. However, the majority of these programmes will operate only at the universal level, delivering interventions across entire youth population groups. As with all universal programmes, it is hard to see how universal messages will be effective for young people already in abusive peer relationships.

It would seem that higher-level intervention programmes for young people, who are experiencing abuse and violence in their own romantic relationships, should be considered. To ensure their effectiveness, the provision of screening and assessment tools to help professionals identify these young people should also be considered as part of any targeted intervention programmes.

Schools have a vital role, not only to educate their young people in relation to this issue but to identify those experiencing this issue or at an increased risk.

Schools and teachers should ensure:

  • Training on domestic abuse is provided to all staff with a specific focus on young people.
  • School policies on teenage relationship abuse should outline clearly the procedures for responding to and resolving issues.
  • The teaching of healthy relationships and consent is an embedded part of the school’s PSHE provision.
  • Family interventions are supported by and, where appropriate, delivered within the school.
  • If higher level intervention is required, timely and appropriate referrals to social care and / or specialist services are made for young people and families.
  • Policies promoting gender and cultural equality are part of PSHE lessons.
  • The implementation of an evidence-based and fully evaluated life skills programme focused on vulnerable young people is considered.
  • When using outside agencies and speakers, care is taken to ensure that delivery is aligned with the available evidence-base.


1 = Dating Violence Among Adolescents Article: Prevalence, Gender Distribution, and Prevention Program Effectiveness, 2004, Hickman et al.
2 = Adolescent dating violence: do adolescents follow in their friends', or their parents', footsteps?, Foshee et al, 2004
3 = Silverman JG, Raj A, Mucci LA, Hathaway JE. Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality. JAMA.2001
4 = Lavoie et al 2002; Pflieger and Vazsonyi 2005
5 = Roscoe and Callahan 1985; O’Keefe et al 1986; Smith and Williams 1992; O’Keefe and Treister 1998; Wolfe et al 2001a; Simonelli et al 2002; Whitfield et al 2003

How do you deal with this issue in your school? Let us know below.


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