Verge of Harming
Exploring abuse in young people’s relationships and support for young people who harm
Early teens….you’re not thinking about whether things are healthy, you’re just doing stuff… 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
At SafeLives, we know harmful behaviour is so much harder to change once it has become embedded. That is why it is so important we bring young people back from the verge of harming – stopping abuse before it starts.
This research, funded by two philanthropic funders, seeks to address the evidence gap around young people’s use of harmful behaviours in their relationships.
- To explore why and how young people begin to use abusive behaviours in their relationships
- To better understand what it means to be on the ‘verge of harming’
- To explore what support for young people who harm should look like
More than 850 young people bravely shared their experiences about using harmful behaviour, and 10 practitioners gave their insight into supporting those who harm.
Thank you. Without your openness and expertise, this project would not have been possible.
Young people and harming
30% of young people completing the survey said they had used harmful behaviours in a relationship.
Of these young people: 41% said they had used harmful behaviours in a romantic relationship and 47% said they had used harmful behaviours with a family member
Young people were significantly more likely to describe the use of emotional/psychological abuse (48%) than behaviours within any other grouping.
Young people provided a range of reasons, justifications and motivations for harmful behaviour across their survey responses and within interviews. These were grouped into five themes:
- Trust issues: Young people frequently described their use of harm being linked to insecurity, suspicions that their partner was cheating on them, and fear of rejection. Some saw controlling behaviour as a means of maintaining their relationship.
- Emotional dysregulation: Many young people described being unable to process or manage big emotions and using harmful behaviour as a kind of emotional release. For neurodivergent young people and those with mental ill-health, there were extra complexities around emotional regulation.
- Adverse experiences: A number of young people linked their harmful behaviour to their own experiences of trauma, and many discussed the normalisation of harm across their home and family environment, their peer relationships, their early romantic/dating relationships and the media.
- Reaction/response: Some young people described their use of harm as a response to the behaviour of another. In some cases this appeared to reflect violent resistance, and in others it was about using harm to punish someone for unwanted behaviour.
- Power and control: Some young people described the use of harm as a means to gain feelings of power and control, sometimes to compensate for a lack of control in other areas, and sometimes because they found it enjoyable.
Young people described anger, followed by jealousy, insecurity and sadness as the feelings most linked with the use of harmful behaviour.
Support for young people who harm
When asked about what support for young people who harm should look like, young people most commonly discussed the need for support to be non-confrontational; the importance of the young person feeling accepted, and the importance of a relationship of trust with the person delivering support.
Young people and practitioners emphasised a current lack of support for young people when they are first entering romantic/dating relationships, despite young people expressing a desire to engage in such support.
Young people completing the survey described what they felt would have helped them to not use harmful behaviours, the most common themes across their responses were:
- Having a space to discuss their behaviours and get advice
- Being able to reflect on their own thoughts and actions
- A change in the relationship dynamic
- Increased education/awareness
Many young people expressed a lack of understanding of how to have a healthy relationship and a desire for guidance around this.
Young people reflected that this was in part due to a lack of modelling of healthy relationships by those in their life and across the media.
Where there were examples of healthy relationships modelled by the adults in their lives or provided through education, these were predominantly heteronormative. This therefore led to a narrow view of what healthy relationships can look like and provided an additional barrier for LGBTQ+ young people to navigate their relationships healthily.
There are numerous elements of a young person’s experiences and identity which may shape their experience of harm and harming and their engagement with support. These include:
- The intersecting elements of who the young person is, including their ethnicity and culture, their sexuality and gender identity, and any mental ill-health or neurodiversity.
- What harmful behaviours the young person is using and what impact this has on themselves and others.
- The motivations and underlying reasons why the young person may be using these behaviours.
Young people felt the following elements should be included in behaviour change work:
- Understanding contributing factors. How a young person’s past experiences, underlying beliefs, or emotional dysregulation could contribute to their use of harmful behaviours
- Facilitating reflection. Helping young people to reflect on their own behaviours
- Building empathy and understanding. Supporting young people to understand the impact of their behaviours and ‘denormalise’ harmful behaviours
- Providing a framework for healthy relationships and behaviour. Young people felt they needed to be given framework for healthy relationships and behaviours which includes a focus on healthy communication and boundaries
- Behaviour modelling and guidance. In addition to having a framework for healthy behaviour and relationships, young people and practitioners felt that these dynamics should be modelled to the young person by those offering support, as well as those in their wider support network
- Domestic abuse awareness. Healthy relationship education needs to be accompanied by unhealthy relationship education, so that young people are able to identify abusive behaviours
Young people showed a preference for informal support networks over formal support.
Young people found the endings of relationships particularly turbulent and felt they needed more support around how to manage this stage of a relationship in a healthy way
Over half (56%) of the young people who took part in workshops said they would not seek support if they were worried about their own behaviour. The most frequently described barriers were around fear and embarrassment.
Healthy relationships education and prevention work needs to:
- Expand current understandings of abuse to include behaviours that aren’t solely physical
- Equip young people to respond well and safely when their friends share concerns about their own behaviour
- Develop young people’s emotional literacy so that they feel able to identify, understand and express adverse emotions in a healthy way
Resources and education relating to healthy relationships and domestic abuse need to expand beyond heteronormative depictions to ensure visibility of LGBTQ+ relationships.
Domestic abuse awareness campaigns that want to reach young people need to ensure terminology (such as ‘domestic abuse’) is explained in a way that feels relevant for young people, using examples with characters/actors in this age range and behaviours that take place in young people’s relationships.
This research identified a need for support that exists between the levels of prevention (before harm is used) and specialist domestic abuse support.
Partnership working between specialist domestic abuse services and organisations working with young people (such as schools) needs to be strengthened in order to increase the visibility of such services and improve referral pathways.
Research focused on the new 'Relationships and Sex Education' (RSE) curriculum should be carried out with a domestic abuse lens in order to explore the impact of this new curriculum on young people’s views around, and experiences of, romantic/dating relationships. SafeLives have recently research exploring how the new curriculum is being received in secondary schools, however further work is needed focusing on primary schools.
Specialist training focused on domestic abuse and young people should be made available to professionals working with this age group. As therapists/counsellors were the practitioner group young people said they would be most likely to share concerns about their own behaviour with, training should be made available to them as a priority.
Support for young people who harm should be holistic, working with the whole person (intersecting identities and overlapping needs), whole family, and whole community (family and other professionals working with the young person)
The response to young people who harm should be supportive rather than solely punitive, ensuring that when consequences/punishment are a necessary response to such behaviour, this does not happen without support and behaviour change work also being provided
Those providing support should seek to build and maintain strong working relationships with the young people they are supporting, as well as family and other professionals, and take time to end these relationships well
Those working with young people who harm should seek to tailor the support environment so that each young person feels that they are in a judgement-free, nonconfrontational, and safe space