Cardiff University researchers have carried out the first large-scale survey on physical violence within young peoples’ relationships.
75,000 11 to 16-year-olds were questioned, with over half reporting their dating experience. Of those, 17% of boys and 12% of girls said they had experienced physical violence by a romantic partner at least once. This affects boys and girls from all socio-economic backgrounds, but rates of exposure were higher among children not living with both parents.
The deputy leader of Cardiff University’s school health research network, Graham Moore, said there was no reason to believe exposure to violence within romantic relationships would be different from exposure to other violence in adolescence. Graham went on to say that domestic violence in young people’s relationships should be treated as a public health issue.
“In some ways the relationships we have in adolescence are very formative and set the tone for the way we approach relationships in later life…which could mean this research carries some profound consequences.”
Long-term consequences of violence in children’s dating relationships has not been well researched until recently. Catherine Hill of Phoenix Domestic Abuse Services said problems could be complex as issues at home or school may be leaving these young people more vulnerable. Equally, dealing with these problems can be complex as their age means these young people often fall between the “gap of services” to help - they are not ‘young children’ in an abusive home environment and not old enough for conventional domestic violence support.
“Yes, they fall within child protection, but the support that social services can offer is not bespoke enough for what they need. So many domestic abuse services will offer packages of support for young children who have witnessed domestic abuse, but when they are victims it can become quite difficult”
It’s a thought-provoking distinction to make. Many parents and carers will have butterflies when young ones enter a relationship in their adolescence. Parental instincts to protect our children are strong and dealing with issues like domestic violence in our children’s relationships will be deeply troubling.
Supporting a child at risk
If you suspect your child to be at risk of this, here are some of the things you can do to help.
- Discuss boundaries: Tell your child that nobody has a right to touch them or make them uncomfortable. This includes family, friends, teachers or any other authority figures. Equally, your child has no right to touch another person’s body and if someone asks them to stop, they should do so immediately
- Help them feel safe: Children who experience domestic abuse need to feel safe. Talk to your child about the importance of healthy relationships and consider how to approach the idea of ending this relationship. We all find relationship-ends difficult, especially so when we are younger. This is part of growing up and developing into a responsible adult
- Talk about healthy relationships: Talking about what healthy relationships look like will help them learn from their abusive experience. When your child has a better understanding of what healthy relationships are and are not, it will help them spot the tell-tale signs. If they are in an abusive relationship it can help to emphasise it is not their fault and they have nothing to be ashamed of
- Help them identify a reliable support system: In addition to a parent, this could be a therapist, school counsellor or other trusted adult who can provide ongoing support. Be aware that school professionals are required to report domestic violence if they suspect it
- Seek professional support: An independent professional can be easier for young people who fear and sometimes resent judgement from those who know them. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of counselling that can help children who have experienced violence, abuse or trauma. It involves helping your child turn negative thoughts into more positive ones and can be very empowering
Facts and Figures
This is a challenge no parent wants to be faced with. It’s difficult to know how representative this Cardiff University survey will be for other parts of the UK, but almost 40,000 children reporting their dating experience is no small number.
In 2015 the Crime Survey of England and Wales identified that 6.6% of men and 12.6% of women aged 16 to 19 had experienced domestic abuse in the past year. This was the highest rate of any age group and markedly higher than the second highest age group (20 to 24).
In a study of 13 to 17-year-olds by the NSPCC, 25% of girls and 18% of boys reported experiencing some form of physical violence from an intimate partner. Also, girls are more likely to have older partners which puts them at greater risk.
It's clear there is a support gap here that must be addressed. In researching for this piece, it has been difficult to find resources that we could refer to young people. The vast majority of the guides and learning materials we found were for adults suffering domestic violence.
Whilst there will be some crossover in how young people deal with this issue compared to adults, there should be more bespoke support available and profile-raising news reports such as this one from the BBC can help in that regard.
In response to the survey results, the Welsh Government said it supported under-16’s suffering domestic violence “through school programmes on healthy relationships and by providing training workshops on peer relationship abuse to professionals working with young people." A spokesman said future curriculums would include “compulsory relationships and sexuality education for ages 3 to 16, ensuring boys and girls learn about what is appropriate in a relationship and about preventing domestic violence."
We would encourage anyone experiencing domestic violence to speak out and seek help. The following resources and materials can be used to help your children if they are experiencing domestic abuse or to help spot the signs of unhealthy relationships;
- Safe Lives Spotlight report – highly recommended report on domestic abuse for young people aged 13 to 17
- Domestic Abuse education toolkit – activities & resources for children and young people from the social workers toolbox
- Healthy Relationships Booklet by The Arc of Spokane
- Domestic Abuse – an information handbook by Domestic Abuse Services
Healing Pasts | Building Futues