Healthy and unhealthy relationships

Last updated: 08 Nov 2021
Introduction

Children form bonds with others at all stages of their development. Forming healthy, positive relationships helps children and young people feel safe and supported as they grow up.

But being in an unhealthy relationship negatively affects a young person’s wellbeing. They might feel anxious and nervous or not free to make their own decisions. They might have low self-esteem and depression, experience headaches or have other ongoing physical health symptoms (Women's Aid, 2015).

It's important that anyone who works or volunteers with children is able to recognise if something is wrong in a young person’s relationship and take appropriate action to keep them safe.

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

> Read more about child mental health

Worried about a child's behaviour?

If you think a child is behaving in an unhealthy way towards a peer, you need to take action to support and protect everyone involved.

> Find out how to respond to incidents of harmful sexual behaviour

> Take our elearning course about managing harmful sexual behaviour in primary and secondary schools

> Read more about managing allegations of abuse against a child

Recognising

Recognising the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships

Children and young people might not always understand that a relationship they are in is unhealthy. If they have been groomed for example, they might believe they are in a healthy relationship. If they have experienced unhealthy or abusive family relationships, they might never have known any different. 

This means children and young people might not always speak out about unhealthy relationships. So it's really important that the adults around them are able to spot the warning signs.

Signs of healthy relationships

A healthy relationship is one where a young person is respected and feels valued for who they are. It’s where they can openly share their thoughts and feelings and feel supported and encouraged.

Healthy relationships include:

  • good communication
  • mutual respect
  • trust
  • honesty
  • equality
  • being yourself.

In a healthy relationship a person is free to make choices about their own behaviour and is not controlled or coerced into doing anything.

Signs of unhealthy relationships

An unhealthy relationship is one where a child is not being treated with respect. They might be forced or coerced into doing things they aren’t comfortable with, be made to behave in a certain way, or be made to feel they aren’t good enough. Because young people don't always realise when they are in an unhealthy relationship, it is important that adults are able to recognise the signs.

A young person might:

  • not have close relationships other than with one particular person
  • be isolated from friends and family
  • be prevented from working or going to school, college or university
  • have their money taken away or controlled
  • have access to food, drinks and day-to-day items restricted
  • have their time controlled or heavily monitored
  • have their social media accounts controlled or heavily monitored
  • be told what to wear
  • feel pressured to do things they are not comfortable with
  • be put down or criticised
  • experience threats of violence if they don’t behave a certain way
  • experience threats to loved ones or pets
  • be threatened with damage to their personal property

(Women's Aid, 2015).

Displaying unhealthy behaviours

Sometimes children and young people display unhealthy behaviours towards someone else. If a child is becoming possessive, controlling or violent towards another person, or displaying bullying or harmful sexual behaviour, this might be an indicator that something else in their life is causing them distress. It's vital that you respond quickly to ensure the child gets the support they need and their behaviour does not cause harm.

> See our resources about harmful sexual behaviour

> Get more information on bullying

Responding

What to do if you're worried about a young person

If you think a child or young person is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, it’s important to respond appropriately.

Start a conversation

Think carefully about how to talk to children and young people if you think they are in an unhealthy relationship. You should speak to your nominated child protection lead and get their advice before you talk to the child.

Things to consider include:

  • Is it appropriate to have a direct, one-to-one conversation with the child about the relationship they are in? This will depend on the child and the relationship you have with them. It could help them open up or it could make them feel criticised and singled out.
  • Is it appropriate to have a group discussion about relationships in general, making it clear that you're available to talk if anyone has a concern?
  • Instead of having a long conversation about the topic, you might find it easier to have regular short chats over a period of time. This gives children and young people a chance to process the issues you've discussed.

> Find out how to listen to a child who is talking to you about abuse

> Read about what measures you need to take if you’re alone with a child

> See our tips on having difficult conversations with children and young people

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

If you need advice about how to proceed, contact our helpline on 0808 800 5000, report your concern online or email us at help@nspcc.org.uk.

Remember to listen carefully to what children and young people are saying. Show them that you value their point of view and don’t talk over them. Remain calm and non-judgmental.

Make sure children and young people know who to speak to

Children and young people might need time to think about things before they decide to speak out. So make sure they know who they can talk to if they need support or are worried about anything.

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice, direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can contact Childline online or get information and advice about healthy and unhealthy relationships on the Childline website.

Reporting concerns

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse

> Find out more about protecting children from bullying

> Find out what to do if a child is in an abusive sexual relationship with a peer

> Read more about managing allegations of abuse against a child

References and resources

References and resources

Women's Aid (2015) Controlling behaviour in relationships: talking to young people about healthy relationships (PDF). Bristol: Women's Aid Federation of England (WAFE).

Elearning

Our elearning courses on harmful sexual behaviour in schools help develop your understanding of healthy and concerning sexual behaviours and how to respond to incidents of sexualised behaviour.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online. Childline provides information and advice for young people on healthy and unhealthy relationships.

You can also order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Related resources

> Get more information about promoting healthy relationships

> See our resources about harmful sexual behaviour

> Read our information about developmentally typical sexual behaviour for different age groups

> Read "Is this sexual abuse?", our NSPCC helplines report on peer sexual abuse

Other NSPCC resources

Read our information about protecting children from:

Creating a local campaign

Are you looking to deliver tailored messages and campaigns in your area? We are always looking for new ways to reach communities and raise awareness of key safeguarding issues.

> Find out more about how we can help you develop a campaign

Further reading

For further reading on this topic, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the phrase "healthy relationships".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.