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Teenage relationship abuse

Teenage relationship abuse is defined as a pattern of actual or threatened acts of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, perpetrated by an adolescent (between the ages of 13 and 18) against a current or former dating partner. Abuse may include insults, coercion, social sabotage, sexual harassment, threats and/or acts of physical or sexual abuse. The abusive teen uses this pattern of violent and coercive behaviour, in a heterosexual or same gender dating relationship, in order to gain power and maintain control over the dating partner.

Research has shown that some teenagers have worryingly high levels of acceptance of abuse within relationships and often justify the abuse with the actions of the victim, e.g. because they were unfaithful.

A recent study by the NSPCC and the University of Bristol questioned 1,353 young people (aged between 13 and 17 years old, from eight UK schools) on violence in their intimate relationships. Findings included:

  • 33% of girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual abuse.
  • 25% of girls (the same proportion as adult women) and 18% of boys reported some form of physical relationship abuse.
  • Around 75% of girls and 50% of boys reported some form of emotional relationship abuse.
  • Most commonly reported forms of emotional abuse, irrespective of gender, were ‘being made fun of’ and ‘constantly being checked up on by partner’.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to say that the abuse was repeated and that it either remained at the same level of severity, or worsened, especially after the end of the relationship.
  • Younger participants (aged 13 to 15 years old) were as likely as older adolescents (aged 16 and over) to experience some forms of relationship abuse.
  • The majority of young people either told a friend or no-one about the violence; only a minority informed an adult.
  • Risk factors which may increase a teenager’s susceptibility to relationship abuse can include previous experiences of parental domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse and violent peer groups.
  • Teen relationship abuse can have serious outcomes including depression and suicide.

Some of the signs below could indicate that a young person is experiencing relationship abuse. This list is not exhaustive and young people respond differently. These signs could also be due to other causes, but it is useful to be aware of common responses.

  • Physical signs of injury / illness
  • Truancy, failing grades
  • Withdrawal, passivity, being compliant
  • Changes in mood and personality
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Frequent texts and calls from boyfriend / girlfriend
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviour / language / attitudes
  • Depression
  • Pregnancy
  • Use of drugs / alcohol (where there was no prior use)
  • Self-harm
  • Eating disorders or problems sleeping
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress
  • Bullying / being bullied

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