PSHE: Relationship violence

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

Relationship violence not only harms the victims, but also does great damage to children who witness it. And it is a growing problem among young people as well. Karen Sullivan advises

Despite countless convincing campaigns by the government, charities and other bodies, domestic violence is on the increase. In fact, between 2013 and 2015, it increased by some 31 per cent in England and Wales.

While some of this increase could be put down to better reporting, there is no doubt that this is an insidious and worrying trend, and something that will affect generations to come. And the truth is that it is already affecting the children we teach, both as witnesses to violence within their home and as victims in their own relationships. The evidence is compelling.

One in five children have been exposed to domestic abuse (Radford et al, 2011) and a third of these children also experienced another form of abuse. Nearly a third of all girls experience sexual violence from a boyfriend and a quarter of young women are beaten up (Barter, McCarry et al, 2009); the authors of the study concluded that sexual exploitation and emotional bullying is rife in young relationships and that sex education needs to be updated. Subsequent research suggests that young men are even more at risk as they are less likely to report it.

An NSPCC and University of Bristol study (2009) found that nearly 75 per cent of girls and 50 per cent of boys have reported some sort of emotional partner abuse, and one survey found that 77 per cent of young people feel that they do not have enough information and support to deal with physical or sexual violence.

Other studies found that 40 per cent of teenagers are in abusive dating relationships, and that teenagers experience as much relationship abuse as adults. The bleak truth is that one in four women and one in seven men will experience relationship violence in their lives, and over the past 10 years, domestic violence accounted for more than a quarter of all violent victimisations.

Domestic abuse damages kids. A UNICEF report (2008) found that children who are exposed to violence in the home are 15 times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted than the national average.

One resource for teachers published by the Home Office (entitled Teenage Relationship Abuse) points out that 750,000 children witness domestic violence each year, one in four teenaged girls have been hit by a boyfriend (with one in nine reporting serious physical violence) and 18 per cent of boys report some form of physical violence.

That’s the boys that report it, of course. Because that’s another problem. According to Stets and Strauss (1990), men are five times less likely to talk about domestic abuse to friends and family, or report it.

Exposure to domestic violence (even as a witness) has serious ramifications. Social development is damaged and empathy doesn’t develop normally. Personality and behavioural problems are rife, and take many forms, and kids tend not to do as well at school. What’s more, many kids from violent homes are socially isolated, unable to make friends easily because of social discomfort or confusion over what is normal and acceptable, and exhibit signs of more aggressive behaviour (one study showed that 40 per cent of violent teenagers were exposed to violence at home).

And this, of course, feeds into their own relationships, and perpetrates a cycle of violence in which both boys and girls can become victims and perpetrators.

What do we teach in PSHE about domestic violence? Do we focus only on those children who are victims? Those who witness their parents’ violence? How do we prepare them for later life, for healthy relationships? Do we talk about what might be occurring now, in their own adolescent relationships? Do we make clear what domestic abuse actually is, and the multifarious forms that it takes? Do we provide the support and help that sufferers need, in a safe environment?

As a starting point, it is important to make clear exactly what constitutes domestic abuse – abuse within a relationship – as there is a great deal more to this than many people think. In a nutshell, the main types are:

  • Emotional and psychological abuse (verbal abuse such as yelling, blaming, shaming, coercion, intimidation, threats of violence, controlling behaviour).
  • Physical abuse (everything from pinching, pulling hair to pushing, biting, punching and strangling).
  • Sexual abuse (rape or forced participation in unwanted, unsafe or degrading sexual activity).
  • Economic abuse (including withholding money, controlling finances, stealing, sabotaging jobs).

The truth is, however, that anything that amounts to threatening, controlling, coercive, degrading or violent behaviour within a relationship and even after a relationship is domestic abuse. Harassment or stalking by an ex-partner fall into this category, too. Ask your class to name all the different types, and see how aware they are.

There is plenty of research to suggest that school-based programmes can reduce aggression and violence, and raise awareness, but we need to be sure that both genders are given support and the tools they need to break this cycle. In my next article, we’ll look at the ways we can approach this.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, see

Resources and information

  • NSPCC research showing the number of children affected by domestic abuse ( and the number of young women experiencing violence in relationships (
  • Teenage Relationship Abuse: A teacher’s guide to violence and abuse in teenage relationships, Home Office:
  • Starting in School: To end domestic violence, Refuge:
  • Expect Respect: A toolkit for addressing teenage relationship abuse in key stage 3, 4, and 5, Home Office:


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