14/08/2014 16:51 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

How Can We Protect Our Teenage Daughters From Domestic Abuse?

How can we protect our teenage daughters from domestic abuse?

Domestic violence keeps hitting the headlines. The rapper 50 Cent has just been charged. Last month Charles Saatchi accepted a police caution for assault after pictures of him with his hand on wife Nigella Lawson's throat went viral.

It's a relief that abusive relationships are being talked about openly. But if you're the parent of a teenage girl, you can't help feeling anxious. Could your daughter one day end up being the victim of domestic violence?

As Sandra Horley, chief executive of the national domestic violence charity Refuge, said in response to the Saatchi incident, "Domestic violence is a massive social problem in this country....Every week in England and Wales, two women are killed by current or former partners."

According to recent statistics from the Home Office last year around 1.2 million women in the UK suffered domestic abuse. It's estimated that only a quarter of those who are abused by their partners report it to the police. So the actual figure may be much higher.

Teenage girls are just as likely to be in abusive relationships as older women. A few years ago, the NSPCC conducted research with the University of Bristol which found that a third of teenage girls in relationships had suffered unwanted sexual acts, and a quarter had suffered physical violence.

One of the report's authors, Professor David Berridge, said, "The high rate and harmful impact of violence in teenagers' intimate relationships, especially for girls, is appalling. It was shocking to find that exploitation and violence in relationships starts so young."

Whenever domestic abuse happens, people try to make sense of it by looking for patterns. Is it somehow the woman's fault that she ends up with someone who abuses her? Maybe she's unconsciously chosen this kind of relationship.

But as the national domestic violence charity Women's Aid says, "The victim is never responsible for the abuser's behaviour...Blaming his behaviour on someone or something else – the relationship, his childhood, ill health, alcohol or drug addiction – is an abuser's way of avoiding personal responsibility."

Men can be the victims of domestic abuse, too. But the majority of those on the receiving end are women. As Refuge's Sandra Horley said in a thoughtful article in The Guardian recently, "The biggest risk factor is being female."

So what can we do to protect our daughters?

Firstly, we need to know that they recognise the signs of an abusive relationship. If you're 14, you might think it's OK for your boyfriend to take your phone and stop you going out.
(Have a look at some of the examples on the government website This Is Abuse, which is aimed at teenagers.)

Secondly, we need to get over to our sons and our daughters that abuse comes in many forms. It's all very well to live in a world of fairytales and Hollywood films where the hero sweeps in at the last moment to rescue her from an exploding building or an alien with three heads. But the danger isn't just physical. It's psychological, too. It's about an abuser exerting power and control.

This year, the Government extended its definition of domestic abuse to cover 16- and 17-year-olds, and to include coercive, or controlling, behaviour.

As Sandra Horley from Refuge says, "If a woman is forced to change her behaviour because she is frightened of her partner's reaction, then she is being abused."

And finally, we need to talk to our daughters again and again about all the ways in which the abuse of power can creep into sexual relationships.

This isn't easy. We live in a world of strip clubs, internet porn, rape scenes on TV, even Page 3 in The Sun. For some people, that's entertainment. For others, it creates the kind of threatening atmosphere that makes it seem normal for men to have fun by stripping women of power.

It's a debate that's going to continue because it seems to get to the heart of what a free society is.

But in the meantime, it's your job as a parent to tell your daughter right from the beginning that it is never, ever OK for any man – at school, at home, in the pub, in the workplace – to make her feel inferior just because she's female.

And at the very first sign that he is trying to control her – physically, emotionally or psychologically – she must get help.

Where to go for help

Look at the website to find information on how to support a friend or family member.

The national domestic violence charity Women's Aid has a fact sheet full of information that includes some of the telltale signs of an abusive relationship.

Similarly Refuge has a checklist of warning signs, including:

• Is your partner jealous and possessive?

• Are you afraid of him?

• Do you feel isolated? Does he cut you off from family and friends?

• Does he humiliate or insult you?

• Does he physically hurt you? Does he shove, slap, punch or kick you?

• Does he check your private email, Facebook, Twitter or text messages?

• Is he charming one minute and abusive the next? Like Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde?

• Do you change your behaviour to avoid triggering an attack?

• Are you unsure of your own judgement?

• Does he damage your possessions?

• Does he smash up the furniture?

• Does he tell you what to wear or how to do your hair?

If you think you might be experiencing domestic violence:

• The first step is to recognise you're being abused. Just because a man doesn't hit you, doesn't mean you're not being abused. If you change the way you behave because you're scared of how your boyfriend or husband will react, he is abusing you.

• You're not alone – one woman in four experiences abuse in her lifetime. Thousands escape to a life free from fear. You can too.

• Reach out – speak to someone you trust or get in touch with a specialist organisation like Refuge who can offer you help and support.

• It's not your fault – abuse is a choice your partner makes and only he is responsible. No one has the right to hurt you.

• Domestic violence is a crime. Every woman and child has the right to a life free from violence.

Is My Teen In An Abusive Relationship?