PSHE: Tackling teenage relationship abuse

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

​Karen Sullivan continues her focus on violence in teen relationships with a look at the hard facts of abusive relationships, the impact on young women, and what we might be able to do about it in schools

In September, I began a series of articles focusing on domestic violence, how it is affecting young people, and the increasing incidence of violence within teen relationships (PSHE: Relationship violence, SecEd, September 2016:

Although domestic abuse, as an issue, has received a great deal of attention over the past few years with a multitude of awareness-raising campaigns and supportive measures put in place within the community, it is clear that we need to target young people and ensure that they have the tools available to put a stop to it.

In my last article in October, I focused on the prevalence of domestic violence against men – a sensitive and difficult issue for many people (Violence against males, SecEd, October 2016:

In this article, I want to look more closely at what’s happening to girls. The fact that many young people are unaware that it is not just violence that constitutes abuse suggests that the incidence may indeed be higher than recorded statistics suggest.

However, the statistics for violence against young women remain distressing. For example, according to a 2009 Refuge and YouGov survey, more than half of young women aged 18 to 21 reported experiencing at least one abusive incident from a boyfriend, husband or partner.

An NSPCC survey published the same year found that 25 per cent of girls aged 13 to 17 reported intimate partner violence, while one in nine respondents had experienced serious physical violence. Perhaps most worryingly, almost 75 per cent of girls surveyed had experienced emotional abuse.

In 2005, an NSPCC and Sugar magazine survey found that 40 per cent of girls would consider giving their boyfriend another chance if he hit them, and a third said that cheating justified the use of violence.

In other words, young women are still subject to the same belief system that campaigners have spent decades trying to erase – “it’s my fault” or that violence can somehow be justified. And other recent surveys suggest that approximately 40 per cent of young people are already being subjected to relationship abuse in their teenaged years. While these statistics are alarming in themselves, it is the after-effects and long-term outlook for abused young women that is perhaps cause for the greatest concern.

Several US studies (Black, Basile, Breiding et al, 2010; Foshee, McNaughton Reyes et al, 2013; Roberts, Klein & Fisher, 2003) found that teens who suffer dating abuse are more likely to experience alcoholism, eating disorders, promiscuity, thoughts of suicide and violent behaviour. And the Dating Violence Literature Review (Chamberlain 2011) reported that 50 per cent of your people who experience rape or physical or sexual abuse will attempt to commit suicide.

As adults, up to two women are killed by current or former partners every week in England and Wales, and every single day, 30 women attempt suicide as a result of abuse.

In 2011, the director of public prosecutions warned that girls between the age of 16 and 19 are now the group most at risk of domestic violence, closely followed by girls between the ages of 20 and 24. We have a new generation of abusers, but also a new opportunity to put a stop to this insidious issue.

Interestingly, when the US National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline conducted an online survey into dating relationships with tweens (those between 11 and 14), nearly half did not know the warning signs of an unhealthy or hurtful relationship (Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Study, 2008) and only 54 per cent said they would know what to do if a friend came to them for help. And these are not small numbers.

The same survey found that 47 per cent of tweens report being in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, and 72 per cent say that dating relationships begin by age 14. Some 62 per cent of this age group know friends who have been verbally abused in a relationship, and 20 per cent report knowing friends who have been struck (kicked, hit, slapped or punched) by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

A significant number knew friends who had rumours spread about them electronically, had private and embarrassing pictures and videos shared, have been abused via mobile, messaging, text, networking site, etc and, rather astonishingly, have been checked upon by mobile more than 10 times per day and been called or texted between 12am and 5am, again to check up.

A 2005 study (Johnson et al) revealed that teens struggled to identify the boundaries between playing, harassment and abuse, while girls in particular found it difficult to determine if violence was a reflection of love.

If nothing else, these staggering findings suggest that an absence of awareness in vulnerable young women, and at a period of development during which identity and the foundations for future relationships (not to mention self-esteem and feelings of worth) are being established, could have critical implications both now and in the future.

In my next article in this series (due out on November 17, 2016), we are going to look at the best ways to educate young people, to find prevention strategies and ensure that they know what to do when violence or other abuse becomes a feature of a relationship, and also understand not only the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship but the characteristics of a loving, healthy one.

For all the initiatives that have been created to address this issue in both young people and adults, the cycle continues, and its impact cannot be underestimated.

But before we begin, take time to establish some groundwork in your next PSHE class. How many students know someone their own age who has been abused (visit the first article in this series – link above – to remind them of the types of abuse, and include the points above: rumours, checking up, messaging, etc)?

What would they do if they or a friend suffered abuse? How many kids talk to their parents, and how many parents know about their relationships?

Find out if the students think there are ever any grounds for abuse, and what they think they might be. And with that knowledge at your disposal, you’ll have an understanding of what you are dealing with and how best to target advice and support.

Establishing what constitutes a healthy relationship early on can help to protect tens of thousands of young people from a lifetime of abuse – and ensure healthy emotional development that will have a positive impact on not just their futures, but society as a whole.

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


  • Details of the Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Study can be found at
  • Tender is an arts charity working with schools/young people to prevent abuse/sexual violence by promoting healthy relationships:
  • An excellent American factsheet about dating violence:
  • Disrespect Nobody is a Home Office sponsored campaign providing advice on issues relating to abuse, including signs to watch out for:
  • An Avon and Refuge campaign “1in4women” has resources and case histories to help young women to recognise patterns of abuse in their own 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 (including what young women understand about domestic violence):
  • Expect Respect: A toolkit for addressing teenage relationship abuse in key stage 3, 4, and 5, Home Office:


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