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Missing the mark

This report aims to improve the understanding and response to young people who experience teenage relationship abuse.

Number of pages:

24 pages

Date published:

The impact of relationship abuse

girl sitting on steps holding phone looking at camera

The impact of relationship abuse

The devastating impact that living in a household where one parent or carer abuses the other parent or carer can have on a child is well documented – children may experience short and long term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects, although all children and young people will respond differently to this type of trauma and some may not exhibit any negative effects at all. Evidence suggests that one in seven children under the age of 18 lives with domestic abuse at some point in their childhood.

However, the impact and scale of domestic abuse that children and young people experience within their own intimate relationships is often overlooked.

Missing the mark

The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that those aged between 16 and 24 years old were most at risk of domestic abuse of any age group. As a result, the cross-government definition of domestic abuse changed in 2013 to include young people aged 16-17 years old.

This change gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to access domestic abuse services previously only available to those 18 years or older.

However, many under 16s are both likely to have experienced domestic abuse and struggled to access services.

Identifying teenage relationship abuse

Our practitioners report that the use of terms such as ‘domestic abuse’ and ‘intimate relationships’ lead to certain preconceptions about what situations of domestic abuse may look like and correspondingly impacts on how victims of domestic abuse are identified and what responses they are offered. These preconceptions do not always fit with the situations of violence and abuse in relationships experienced by young people.

For example, abuse in teenage relationships do not always involve the victim and the perpetrator regularly sharing the same ‘domestic’ setting. Many young people who experience violence in relationships normally live with their parents or carers, in care settings or live independently in supported accommodation. Young people may also not always see the relationships as ‘intimate’ (or may associate this term with sexual relationships alone and not be willing to disclose this to professionals). This may act as a barrier in young people accepting the offer of support. Similarly, professionals’ biases about what a typical intimate relationship may look like, can result in missed opportunities to identify abuse in teenage relationships and the correct response is therefore not given.

Younger children, those under the age of 16, rarely receive an appropriate offer of support. Some are able to access universal services available for 16 and 17 year olds, and some from specialist young people’s domestic abuse services who work with under 16s as part of their offer. However, the availability of these kinds of services are limited and often not fully equipped to meet a young person’s needs.

There is a distinct lack of clarity around what constitutes teenage relationship abuse and how young people aged 16 and 17 and under the age of 16 who experience abuse in their own relationships should be supported. And, as in the case of children and young people who live in homes where one parent or carer abuses the other parent or carer, children’s likelihood of experiencing, and their responses to experiences of, teenage relationship abuse may vary according to a variety of factors such as, but not limited to, age, race, sex and sexuality – this must influence the response to young victims and young people who may present as abusive in teenage relationships and be reflected in any future government guidance.

facts and figures


of girls and 6.6% of boys have experienced domestic abuse in the past year


of girls and 18% of boys reported physical violence from an intimate partner

Case study

Case study

A 15 year old had been reported as missing by her family. She was classed as absent and later was found in the accommodation of her ‘boyfriend’ who was a young adult. Missing episodes continued but the parent of the young person did not always report her as missing as the police had told the parent ‘not to waste their time’ as they did not believe that the boyfriend posed a risk to the child.

As a result of intervention from voluntary services and children’s social care a child protection meeting was held concerning the young person. At the meeting concerns were raised in relation to trafficking, criminal gang involvement, drugs and CSE.

Following this the young person was recorded as missing and was removed from the home. The young person by that time had been away from home for around four weeks. This shows how early intervention opportunities are often missed. 

girl with red hair sitting on step head on knees hands by feet looking sad

Missing the mark

In 2019, the Government stated that a full review of the response to teenage relationship abuse was not needed as the issue was being addressed through:

  • Prevention in schools focusing on healthy relationships
  • Early intervention and support for schools to manage reports of child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment
  • Toolkit for schools to promote taking a whole-school approach to healthy relationships
  • Requirements on the police to refer instances of teenage relationship abuse to children’s services or to the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

The response also notes that the Home Office has funded IDVAs to work with young people who experience teenage relationship abuse.

These steps are not sufficient and in some instances the government are completely missing the mark when it comes to supporting young people who experience teenage relationship abuse.

It is clear that national and local policies and procedures are failing to make the distinction between sexual violence and harassment and teenage relationship abuse. We have shown that all too often local authorities who consider themselves to have a policy in place to tackle this issue when in actual fact these refer to instances of sexual harassment and abuse – these are two very distinct issues and whilst they must both be treated with high importance, the practical response must differ.

What is more we have found a distinct lack of guidance on how to approach situations where people who present as abusive in teenage relationships continue to display this behaviour after interventions have taken place.

Our evidence demonstrates that teaching children about healthy relationships, whilst
important, on its own is not enough. Young people told us that whilst they might feel confident recognising that they were in an unhealthy relationship, exiting the relationship is a different matter. Young people must be provided with robust and long lasting education about domestic abuse including recognising that it can occur online and be given practical tools to aid with conflict resolution. They should feel empowered to ask and know where to ask for help if they recognise that a relationship they are in is not healthy.

With reference to the Home Office fund for IDVAs, we of course welcome this specialist
support for individuals experiencing domestic abuse. However, research shows that just 34% of IDVA services offer specialist support to young people in additional to adults. In many local areas young people do not have access to support through an YPVA, or equivalent. We have found a post code lottery of support available not just in terms of an offer of specialist IDVA/YPVA support but also for wider community based support for young people experiencing abuse within their own relationships.

The Domestic Abuse Bill provides an opportunity to make the response to young people who experience teenage relationship abuse both better and more consistent across the country.

We are calling for the Government to make their response better by issuing separate statutory guidance on teenage relationship abuse. This guidance should cover early
intervention and prevention through to referral for specialist support and disruption tactics for those that continue to cause harm - the response to both victims and perpetrators of teenage relationship abuse must be strengthened.