30% of young people say they have used harmful behaviours in relationships, SafeLives research suggests.

SafeLives has undertaken research to better understand why and how young people begin to use abusive behaviours in their relationships, and what support should look like for young people who harm.

The report, “Verge of Harming” published today, reveals 30% of young people SafeLives surveyed say they have used harmful behaviours in a relationship. 41% of that group said they had used harmful behaviours in a romantic relationship and 47% said they had used harmful behaviours with a family member.

...from around my age... a lot of people want to be better, but they don't know how... I just hope that the next stage is we figure out how to be better.

22-year-old interview participant

...the way he says something – could make me completely break down inside, and I feel like my world is collapsing, and I feel like he hates me, and I feel like my friends hate me, and I feel like all of this, because of the way something was said. Right before [using harmful behaviour], I feel so sure in what I’m about to do, and I feel so full of like an emotion, it’s huge and it’s like a physical reaction…and then, while I’m doing it, I think it feels kind of like a release

17-year-old interview participant

We know harmful behaviour is so much harder to change once it’s become embedded. That is why it is so important we bring young people back from the verge of harming – stopping abuse before it starts. What makes a relationship healthy? Where can you go if you’re worried about your behaviour? What young people are telling us again and again is that they need guidance and support to help navigate their relationships. Education is the key to prevention. And that education needs to be holistic - reflective of all relationships, whatever form they take. We want to see all professionals who work with young people, tailoring that support so each young person feels they’re in a judgement-free, nonconfrontational, safe space. Domestic abuse is not inevitable. Together – we can make it stop.

Interim Chief Executive of SafeLives, Ellen Miller

Read the Report

More than 850 young people bravely shared their experiences about using harmful behaviour, and 10 practitioners gave their insight into supporting those who harm.

Verge of Harming report

Notes to Editors

The data in this report suggests that young people’s lack of knowledge around what a healthy relationship looks like, was often a barrier to them experiencing healthy relationships, both as a victim and as someone causing harm.

SafeLives’ recent research into the quality and delivery of the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum in secondary schools builds on and reinforces these calls for better education for young people on healthy relationships. Only half (52%) of young people surveyed in this research believed RSE classes gave them a good understanding of toxic and healthy relationships.

It is important to reflect on the gender split of the young people who took part in the ‘Verge of Harming’ study. Of the 40 young people recruited for the interviews, only four identified as male, and only one went on to take part in the study further. Of the 749 young people who took part in the survey, 25% identified as male, compared to 64% female.

In 2019, SafeLives was able to gather the voices and perspectives of more than 1,000 men and boys aged 11 and over, asking them about abuse, masculinity and what a ‘healthy’ relationship looks like. 28% of respondents said they had demonstrated behaviour within a relationship that they regretted, with 64% of these relationships occurring between the ages of 16 and 29.

Data collected in ‘Verge of Harming’ indicated that a gender hierarchy, built on acceptance and expectation of male violence and female responsibilisation, continues to shape young people’s relationships.  For the girls and young women interviewed, this gender hierarchy framed relationships with males as a necessity. Unhealthy and abusive relationships were maintained, in part, because being single was seen as a worse fate than victimisation.

A key recommendation in this study is healthy relationships education and prevention work that equips young people to respond well and safely when their friends share concerns about their own behaviour.

Your Best Friend is a project working with 13-24 year old girls, young women and non-binary people, and experts, to empower young people with the knowledge and confidence to spot abuse in relationships and support their friends. Hundreds of girls, young women, and non-binary people spoke to the project about friendships and relationships, through a series of focus groups and national surveys. 71% felt worried about behaviours they had noticed in a friend’s relationship.

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Your Best Friend, with logo to the left hand side.

Your Best Friend

This project aimed to educate and empower young women, girls and non-binary people with the knowledge and confidence to spot abuse in relationships and support their friends.