Although the majority of young people stated the threat of physical abuse would trigger them to step in, several young people recognised the damage of the psychological abuse and controlling behaviours that appear to be widespread, and somewhat accepted, in their networks. This final theme highlights the need to de-normalise the behaviours that young people are seeing (especially online) due to the trauma and impact this can have on young people. The more it's all seen as 'normal' - the more it will persist and spiral.
Theme 11 - It's not normal... the real impact
Survey of 641 young people aged 13-24 across England and Wales - August 2021
79% / 92%
The threat of physical (79%) or actual physical harm (92%) would be when young people say they would definitely seek professional support
The impact is long lasting...
Some young people highlighted a worrying trend in schools where networks of boys and young men circulate nudes of girls and young women. When this happens, young people stressed it is the young women that are shamed, not boys or young men.

“When I was in high school there was… there was always like big issues with men, kind of, outing girls nudes…And then there was like a whole, like…revenge porn where like these pictures had just been sent out to everyone, everyone has seen them. I think that’s really scary and traumatic for young girls.”​
- Young person, 20-24

“It’s like a massive problem because every year when the children hit like, year nine… year ten, a group of boys they make group chats to circulate nudes in. So, it will even been boys from other schools and it’s like, it’s like a massive network thing that’s continuously happening year after year.​"
- Young person, 20-24
The impact on mental health
Several young people noted the impact of emotional and psychological abuse on a person’s mental health, causing fear and confusion. Other young people talked about the practical fears of leaving a toxic relationship, where someone will go and how overwhelming that situation can be.

“It can do so much to your head like mental health wise.” - Young person, 17-19

“He’s making her feel bad about her body and, you know calling her names…and the fact that she is confused is a big sign that she was being manipulated as well.”
- Young person, 13-16

I just feel for…if someone's been putting you down and you did break up with them…you’re going to have that in your head that no one’s going to like me.”​
- Young person, 20-24

Survey of 641 young people aged 13-24 across England and Wales - August 2021
Had been asked for nudes
How would you help a friend
going through this?
These are all real stories as told to us by young people
- - Trigger warning - please be aware these stories are hard to read. - -
"Other girls said what a great boyfriend he must be"
My friend’s boyfriend was sometimes a bit rough with her. Pulling her about, not actually hitting her. He would grab at her clothes. He made little digs all the time, putting her down and making her feel she’s not good enough. When others were there he was sweet, hold her hand. Other girls said what a great boyfriend he must be.
"She didn't look totally comfortable"
My friend's boyfriend was always all over her, touching her and putting his arm around her neck when they were in public, he would never keep his hands off. She didn't look totally comfortable. It was like he was saying: 'you're mine'.
"He didn't like her talking to anyone else about her relationship..."
I asked my friend if she was ok in her relationship, it seemed like something was wrong in her body language but she said she was ok. She told me that her boyfriend said he didn't like her talking to anyone else about her relationship, because it made him insecure. She didn't feel free to talk to her friends about how she felt.
"My friend is in a toxic relationship. All the signs are there..."
My friend is in a toxic relationship. All the signs are there... She has told stories of being pressured into sex, of him managing her birth control, not respecting boundaries, lots of arguing, and being coercive. However, she has become increasingly hard to talk to. She herself has become volatile and difficult to support. She has become manipulative to us as her friends, and often blows small things into massive arguments, or tries to control puts us all in a very difficult position. She is very hard to get through to. She acknowledges he is not great but just says "it's not forever", yet still continues to stay with him…
"She couldn't move on from him because of his manipulation."
I had a friend who'd broken up with their boyfriend of 4 years when I met her. Despite leaving because it was a toxic, controlling relationship, he still had her under 'his control'. She was stuck, her mental health wasn't great, and she couldn't move on from him because of his manipulation. Countless friends had tried to tell her he wasn't treating her right, but she just didn't want to listen.

Thankfully, she did listen to me, and slowly he started to lose that control; she's finally moved on. But, I worry about her. She doesn't trust anyone. She doesn't think it's 'bad enough' to seek counselling, and tbh if she did, where would she go for it anyway?
"My friend has always had a low self esteem and often talked about her ‘knight in shining armour.’"
My friend has always had a low self esteem and often talked about her ‘knight in shining armour.’ She met this guy and he swept her off her feet. It was very sudden. He moved in with her after 2 weeks. Proposed within 6 months, married within 2 years and a baby not long after that... she was starting to say that she’s unhappy and feels trapped. She’s tried to leave a few times and each time he threatens to kill himself and she goes back.

During lockdown he smashed up the house and she finally left and the police put in a no contact order... 6 weeks later he was back... It feels as if she’s been brainwashed.

The last conversation I had made me feel like I was crazy. Suddenly he was a god and we were all trying to sabotage their relationship. It was a complete reversal. It was like there was no talking to her. Like she was under some sort of spell. It’s been months since he came back and she’s blocked all her friends and family. Even her parents and she was so close to her mum. We worry all the time and feel we’ve lost her to him and just hope nothing awful happens.

.... I wish I had grown up knowing more about how abusive relationships start. I wish there was more that could be done about coercive relationships.
"I would be at the gym, leave and I would have 50 missed calls and a lot of angry texts"
My friends were really worried about me. He used to shout at me for hanging out with other boys and for not spending every minute of my time with him. I would be at the gym, leave and I would have 50 missed calls and a lot of angry texts, even though I told him where I was.

He was 2 years older than me so was really strong and bigger than me. He used to be really mean to me but be really apologetic minutes later... It got to the point that I was scared to be around him. I stopped seeing my friends, stopped my hobbies, isolated myself at school and I was basically at his disposal. It finally ended when I found out he was having sex with other girls and I told my mum everything that was happening.

I don't think I was in an abusive relationship because people have it so much worse than I do. I just had no idea what to do. I was scared, worried and felt forced to push my friends away when I needed them the most. Life hasn't been the same since.

"After that, I had such low self-esteem and confidence, I just lost all will to fight"
It was my first serious relationship and he always seemed to have great excuses for his behaviour. I was mentally, physically, emotionally and sexually abused by him, losing my virginity to rape. He would beat me every time I would say 'no' to him and would force me to perform sexual acts.

After that, I had such low self-esteem and confidence, I just lost all will to fight. I had no one to support me... I had to face the abuse and its consequences all by myself. I even stopped fighting back against guys who were trying to force themselves on me on a night out so I've actually lost count on how many times I've been raped. I reported it once but was told nothing could be done and to be more careful next time so I stopped reporting them. The world is so dangerous for a woman that you learn to just accept your fate or never leave the house again...

"I didn't know about the support I could have"
At 17 I entered an abusive relationship. It slowly got abusive and I didn't see it happening until one day I realised I was isolated from everyone, my grades had suffered and I was contemplating suicide. I didn't know about the support I could have and I felt as though I couldn't go to the police as I was led to believe this was normal behaviour.
"I love him though"
My boyfriend and I are in a long distance relationship. He says that I should always make sure that I cover my shoulders, don't show my legs and wear modest clothing. He doesn't want me speaking to any boys at school either and would like me to send pictures of what I wear so he can approve it before I leave the house. I love him though, and he says it's because he doesn't want boys staring and that he doesn't want to lose a good thing (me).
"He started to tell me that I couldn't see my family or friends. It was horrible"
I met a boy who seemed perfect. We got into a relationship after about a week and things were good. Skip about 2 weeks and he started asking me for all of my passwords for my social media. If I refused, he would get angry at me. Sometimes he would get physical with me like punch or kick me if I refused to do something. He started to tell me that I couldn't see my family or friends. It was horrible. Thankfully I managed to get out of this relationship before things got worse.
"It got so bad that my friend had to phone him"
I had a boyfriend who was in my sports club. He wanted to do sexual things all the time. I had panic attacks. I was a year younger. He would say things to me like 'I can't wait until you're sixteen so we can have some fun'. He would touch me inappropriately in public such as grabbing my bum in front of other club members. I tried to move away, he pulled me back. He didn't like it when I asked him to slow down. It got so bad that my friend had to phone him and say it was over because I was too afraid.
"I've had anxiety, depression and suicidal intentions"
I've had anxiety, depression and suicidal intentions. At the beginning, he was kind. I told him I was suicidal; he'd tell me I was being too self-centred. I tried to overdose whilst together. I met someone else. I broke up with him over text because it didn't feel safe to see him. He told me that he was my only chance to not be alone, and if I killed myself, it would save him a lot of tears. I'm struggling. I'm back in counselling and got people who support me. Being suicidal doesn't just go away, but I'm trying my hardest, I'll be okay.
"I really love him but I felt trapped"
He loved me a lot but I realized 'bumps' in our relationship were serious. He would look through my phone. He told me to not talk to other boys. He bought me expensive stuff. I felt like I 'owed' him something. Breaking up felt like such a big adjustment I couldn't cope. We took a five-day break. I missed him and we got back together. He was 'uncomfortable' with me meeting up with a friend. Sometimes I noticed he manipulated me, not really obviously. I felt I didn't have a choice or know what to do. I really love him but I felt trapped.
"I always felt really vulnerable around him"
My first boyfriend tried to come on to me a lot and I'd say no (I'm a virgin and didn't feel ready). He kept being more needy and saying 'I'm just going to keep asking until you say yes'. I am in a wheelchair so I often felt uneasy because he would have to help me into my chair, so I wouldn't be able to move off the sofa if he didn't help. I always felt really vulnerable around him. We aren't together now. I realised I shouldn't feel uncomfortable around someone who was supposed to love me. I'm just glad he didn't do anything to me.
"It got to the point that if I got a notification on my phone, I'd feel physically sick."
When I was 16 I started to see a guy a few years older than me. He was well know in the area so everyone knew me as his lady. He used to buy me new phones and gifts. I had to go to a family funeral so he faked being in a car crash so I came home early. He told me people were after him as he owed them money, he knew I was saving for a school trip and asked me to loan my savings, he never repaid me. He got people to break into my house twice and stole a laptop. He used to threaten other male friends.

I was in a relationship for 7 months. At the beginning, he was sweet and cared about me. 4 months in, he pressured me into having sex. I didn't want to, but was scared he'd get angry. I said yes but the whole time I was frozen. When he was angry, I'd be frightened that he was going to physically hurt me. The last 2 months, the only contact we'd have would be him getting angry at me. Other than that, nothing. It got to the point that if I got a notification on my phone, I'd feel physically sick.

"I'm still fighting depression but I'm much happier in myself."
I was 15 and he was 15. We were together for 2 years, got engaged and everything was perfect... when my family were around. He would shout at me and swear at me if I did something wrong. If I spoke to others he would complain and tell them its none of their business. He cheated on me a few times and when I called him up on it he'd bring up times I was drunk and where people forced me to do things and made me feel small.

I met my friends when I was nervous to go out alone due to being harassed. He found us and shouted in my face, humiliating me. He threatened to hit me. I did as I was told and went to where he was and he shouted "you never try hard enough". I was in love and didn't know any better. When he stayed at mine he always wanted to have sex. He'd guilt trip me until I said yes. I got severely depressed. I'm out of that relationship and in a new one and I've realised how toxic the relationship was. I'm still fighting depression but I'm much happier in myself.
"He is kind of controlling but I don't really mind"
I was 12 when I got with my boyfriend, we were going to the same school. He started saying sexual things to me (he was also 12) and said "if you don't feel the same, we may need some time apart." I really loved him and told him I felt the same. He is kind of controlling but I don't really mind because he says he is only doing it because he loves me the way I am and doesn't want me to change, so he says that if I do things like wear makeup or dye my hair, he will dump me. I do as he says so that we can stay together and be happy.
"It was my fault for making him suspicious in the first place"
Last year on my way home from school I stopped by the shops to get my boyfriend presents for his birthday. I turned my location off on Snapchat beforehand to make it a surprise. He got suspicious as to where I was and began shouting thinking that I was doing something bad behind his back, he never believed that I was just getting him his birthday presents... It was my fault for making him suspicious in the first place I guess but he would also limit my contact with people because he didn't like me being around them...
"I realised I didn't like boys...he told me I was wrong"
I'm a girl who is 16. I realised I didn't like boys while dating one - when I tried to break the news to him, he told me I was wrong, that maybe I liked girls, but I HAD to like boys because we had done "stuff"*. I was scared and he was a year and a half older than me, taller than me, and I honestly thought he would hurt me if I tried to leave, given the ways he had acted before (grabbing my wrists, pulling me about, he hit me a few times). It took me a really long time to get away from him, I dated him for nearly 2 years out of fear.

"I had a boyfriend who would accidentally hit me"
I had a boyfriend who would accidentally hit me and spend all his time with other girls and say they were just friends. He always wanted me to spend time with him and not my friends. Whenever he was stressed or annoyed he took it out on me but whenever we were with friends he would be nice and caring. He's yelled at me before so I got scared and ran off and he then grabbed my waist and refused to let me go and got in my face and told me off for running away from him. He always pressured me into doing things that I didn't want to do.
Survey of 641 young people aged 13-24 across England and Wales - August 2021
Of young people said that self-doubt would 'definitely' or 'maybe' stop them talking to their friend about toxic or unhealthy relationships
Things to think about
These are just some of the many questions that might prompt answers:

  • How might we help young people know what to do if their friend's private images are being shared?
  • How might we help young people talk about changes in mental health more?
  • How might we make it easier to turn to for support once out of an abusive relationship?
  • How might we help friends look after themselves too?
  • How might we help young people recognise unacceptable behaviour?
  • How might we help friends put a stop to unacceptable behaviour?
  • How do we challenge people in positions of care to put a stop to unacceptable behaviour?
  • How do we help young people help their friends to not feel guilty about anything their abusive partner tells them?
How might we...?

Survey of 641 young people aged 13-24 across England and Wales - August 2021
Of young people also said that fear would 'definitely' or 'maybe' stop them talking to their friend about toxic or unhealthy relationships
What are we doing about this?
We're currently working with young people in England and Wales to explore these insights so that we can co-produce resources to tackle the problem. We'll then need your help to get them out into places where young people spend time, both offline and online.

As we learn and create, we'll keep updating this page so please do come back to see more.

If you want to get in touch to help with this theme please contact

#WhatWillWork #YourBestFriend