How the latest research on violence in teenage relationships should inform social work practice

The latest research has found worryingly high levels of violence in young people's relationships, writes Christine Barter, NSPCC senior research fellow at the University of Bristol

Domestic violence is now recognised as constituting a major risk to the welfare of adult women and their children. However, violence in teenage relationships has failed, until recently, to receive the same level of attention.

The latest research findings

Two recent research studies, undertaken by me alongside colleagues, provide unequivocal evidence about the significance of this issue for the welfare of young people, and the wellbeing of girls and young women in particular.

The initial study (Barter et al, 2009) surveyed more than 1,300 pupils aged 13 to 17 years and interviewed 90 young people. The research found worryingly high levels of violence in young peoples relationships.

A quarter of girls reported physical violence from a partner and a third had been pressured or forced into unwanted sexual acts. In comparison, 18% of boys reported some form of physical violence and 16% stated they had experienced sexual violence.

Many of the young women reported very high levels of control and surveillance from their partners, and once impact is also included, the gendered nature of this form of intimate violence becomes apparent. The majority of girls who experienced violence or control reported a negative impact on their welfare, including being scared, upset and humiliated.

In comparison, boys reported being annoyed or no impact. Young people with a same-sex partner were also shown to be at risk of intimate violence.

A follow-up qualitative study (Wood et al, 2010) explored the issue with more disadvantaged groups, including young people in care and young mothers. Young women in this research reported substantially higher levels of partner violence compared to the first study, with the violence being more severe and frequent. Young mothers reported especially high levels of violence from their male partners, increasing in pregnancy and once the baby was born.

Many disadvantaged young people felt that violence was a normal, although unwelcome, aspect of being in a relationship. Worryingly, the vast majority of young people in both studies did not divulge their experiences to adults, including professionals.

A range of associated risk factors were identified including: having experienced domestic violence or child abuse; associating with peers who use intimidation; and having a much older partner (at least two years older).

The impact of the research findings on social work practice

  • There is a need to include an exploration of this form of violence as a routine aspect of all work with young people, even if it is not overtly apparent.
  • Social workers should be aware that disadvantaged young people may have multiple risk factors in their lives which require addressing.
  • Work with young women needs to include building self-esteem away from relationships.

Key issues for practitioners

  • To ensure that violence in young peoples relationships is viewed as being as serious as adult domestic violence
  • To develop expertise in working with young people in this sensitive area, including an awareness of possible risk factors.
  • The need to counteract the negative view of professional support some young people hold – especially from young mothers.
Further reading

Barter, C. (2009), In the Name of Love; Exploitation and violence in teenage dating relationships’, British Journal of Social Work, 39(2), p211-232

Wood, M., Barter, C., and Berridge, D. (2010), Disadvantaged young people and partner violence, London, NSPCC

Community Care Inform guides to, and research related to, domestic violence

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