The issue of violence in teenage relationships

Written by: Mark Bowles | Published:
Photo: iStock

Violence in adolescent relationships is a growing concern for many. Expert Mark Bowles examines the evidence, prevalence, and impact of this kind of violence on young people – and looks at what schools can do to play their part in tackling the problem

Violence in romantic relationships has been long thought to be an adult issue. However significant evidence from the US exists in relation to its prevalence within adolescent relationships and an understanding of its impact is building in the UK.

Because domestic violence is often perceived as an adult issue, the focus of most research has been on adults and the impact of domestic abuse on their wider families (1, 2). More recently, 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 programmes (3).

Given the understanding of adolescence as a critical developmental period and the substantial amount of research in relation to adolescence, it is surprising that so little is known about this social problem of violence in adolescent intimate relationships.

Young people involved in dating violence are at higher risk of further violence in future relationships, riskier sexual behaviour (4) and increased rates of substance use and eating disorders (5).


Although a substantive body of UK evidence exists on adult women's, and to a lesser extent children's, experiences of domestic violence (1, 2), we know little about teenagers' own experiences of partner violence. Most of the empirical evidence on teenage partner violence is derived from US studies.

These findings suggest that boys and girls use similar levels of physical and emotional violence towards their partners (6), resulting in propositions that teenage partner violence demonstrates a greater degree of gender symmetry compared to adult domestic violence where women are predominantly the victim.

However, research also shows that girls are more likely to be the recipient of serious physical and sexual violence than boys. In addition, while both boys and girls use verbal violence and control mechanisms, the impact of these on girls appears to be much greater than on boys (7).

Rates of relationship abuse vary according to age, sex, and previous experience of violence (8). The prevalence of relationship violence is higher in adolescents than in adults, with females aged 12 to 18 years having the highest victimisation rate (9).

Approximately 20 per cent of young women have experienced violence from a dating partner (10) and first episodes of violence frequently occur in adolescence (11).

The NSPCC has tried to bridge this gap in the UK evidence-base in part through its 2009 paper Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships (12).

This multi-method study collected survey responses from 1,353 young people aged between 13 and 17 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 does indicate that adolescent dating violence is a potentially significant child welfare problem in the UK.


Most of the US and wider international literature has adopted the term “dating" to describe this area of work. However, this terminology does not transfer well to the UK context, as young people do not use or recognise this term.

In addition, “dating" seems to imply a degree of formality which does not necessarily reflect the diverse range of young people's intimate encounters and relationships. Experts have argued that research needs to reflect the fluidity of teenage relationships, producing typologies to describe different teenage intimate encounters (13).

Researchers also warn that teenagers use specific terms such as “hanging out", “hooked up", “being sprung" and “being friends with privileges", and that such terms undoubtedly vary by county, region, gender, age and ethnicity (3).

Also, there are clear problems when describing domestic abuse among young people, since there are myriad terms attached to this behaviour and they are mostly focused on abuse in adult relationships. Much of the evidence, mainly from the US, focuses on using “dating violence", which does not take into account other forms of abuse young people experience. Other terms include “intimate partner violence or abuse" and “teenage partner violence or abuse".

Impact among young people

What we know about teenage partner violence testifies to its serious consequences for the wellbeing of victims and their future life prospects. Relationship abuse negatively impacts on young people's wellbeing, initiating feelings of anger, hurt and fear (14).

More girls than boys report severe emotional reaction, fear and physical injuries; more boys report being unperturbed (15). One study found that more than half of victims reported feeling “bad about themselves" alongside feelings of anger, sadness, depression and low self-esteem (16).

For some, partner abuse is a continuation of violence in their lives, and, for others, it is their first experience of this type of behaviour. Some studies have indicated that abuse in adolescent relationships can be a precursor for abuse in adult relationships (17).

Risk factors

The research has identified some risk factors, which include previous experiences of parental domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and violent peer groups (10, 14, 18).

While less researched, it appears that parental neglect, especially lack of supervision and involvement/interest in their teenage children's lives, also has a negative impact on young people's vulnerability to partner violence (19), although what constitutes “neglect" for adolescents has still to be fully explored within the research literature.

However, the research has identified key protective factors, which include:

  • Achievement at school.
  • Having a safe haven.
  • Support from positive role-models – in school and outside of school.
  • Assertiveness (both internal and external).
  • Sense of physical, emotional, and economic security.

What can schools and teachers do?

As outlined above, this is a growing area of study, especially in the UK. Work has been undertaken however, not least by the NSPCC (13) that does suggest young people in the UK suffer from violence in adolescent relationships at a comparable level to their US peers.

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 however that a need for 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 could ensure that:

  • Training on domestic abuse is provided to all staff with a specific focus on young people.
  • Training includes risk and protective factors related to adolescent dating violence.
  • Consideration is given to the specific needs of children experiencing domestic abuse.
  • Family interventions are supported by and where appropriate delivered within the school.
  • Timely and appropriate referrals to social care and/or specialist services are made for young people and families.
  • Universal and targeted programmes and interventions are implemented, ensuring that the most appropriate support can be offered.
  • The teaching of healthy relationships and consent is an embedded part of the schools PSHE provision (universal provision).
  • The implementation of an evidence-based and fully evaluated life-skills programme focused on vulnerable young people is considered (targeted provision).
  • When using outside agencies and speakers care is taken to ensure that delivery is consummate with the available evidence-base.
  • Mark Bowles is director of The Training Effect, a provider of health-based interventions on topics such as substance misuse, families with complex needs, risk-taking behaviour, emotional and mental health.

  1. Children's Perspectives on Domestic Violence, Mullender et al (2002).
  2. Domestic Violence: Making it through the criminal justice system, University of Sunderland and the Northern Rock Foundation; Hester, M (2006).
  3. Dating Violence Among Adolescents Article: Prevalence, Gender Distribution, and Prevention Program Effectiveness, Hickman et al (2004).
  4. Dating Violence Among Urban, Minority, Middle School Youth and Associated Sexual Risk Behaviors and Substance Use, Lormand, Donna et al, Journal of School Health 83.6 (2013).
  5. Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality, Silverman JG, Raj A, Mucci LA, Hathaway JE, Journal of the American Medical Association (2001).
  6. Adolescent Dating Violence: Do adolescents follow in their friends', or their parents', footsteps?, Foshee et al (2004).
  7. “If It Hurts You, Then It Is Not a Joke": Adolescents' ideas about girls' and boys' use and experience of abusive behavior in dating relationships, Sears et al (2006).
  8. An Evaluation of Safe Dates, an Adolescent Dating Violence Prevention Program, Foshee et al (1998).
  9. Domestic Violence: Findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire, Home Office (1999).
  10. Teen Dating Violence, O'Keefe, Brockopp, Chew (1986).
  11. Romance and Violence in Dating Relationships, Henton et al (1983).
  12. Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, NSPCC (2009):
  13. Dating Experiences of Bullies in Early Adolescence, Connolly et al, Child Maltreatment (2000); Making Meaning of Relationships: Young women's experiences and understandings of dating violence. Chung, D (2007).
  14. Victims of Dating Violence Among High School Students: Are the predictors different for males and females? O'Keefe M and Treister L, Violence Against Women (1998).
  15. Dating Abuse: Prevalence, consequences, and predictors, Foshee et al (1996).
  16. Risk Factors Associated with Date Rape and Sexual Assault of Adolescent Girls, Vicary et al, Journal of Adolescence (1995).
  17. Can We Prevent the Hitting? Recommendations for preventing intimate partner violence between young adults, O'Leary et al (1989).
  18. Importance of Gender and Attitudes about Violence in the Relationship between Exposure to Interparental Violence and the Perpetration of Teen Dating Violence, Wolfe et al, Child Abuse and Neglect (2013)
  19. Parenting Processes and Dating Violence: The mediating role of self- esteem in low and high SES adolescents, Pflieger and Vazsony, Journal of Adolescence (2006).
Photo: iStock


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