A ground-breaking project working with some of Scotland's most high risk young offenders has revealed that most grew up with significant trauma in their family background, and that three quarters have experience of domestic violence.

The impact of significant domestic abuse between parents or between parents and their partners is more damaging than even physical abuse of the child, according to the team behind the University of Strathclyde's Interventions for Vulnerable Youth (Ivy) service.

Consultant Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Dr Lorraine Johnston said "We are seeing a bigger effect of domestic violence than of an other form of maltreatment, even physical abuse of children,"

She added that the team were trying to disentangle the effects of early life events to intervene early, helping protect victims, save costs and also help the young people themselves.

"We are trying to make sense of why that [domestic violence] is particularly toxic. I would not want to minimise other abuse experiences, but there seems to be something particularly difficult about watching someone you love being harmed by someone else you love. It seems to be extremely potent for young people."

The Ivy project cites figures showing that 76% of young people referred to it have witnessed domestic violence in the home, while an evaluation of the project found that 28 out of 42 young people assessed had been exposed to violence in the home.

Dr Johnstone said that the domestic violence witnessed by some of the young people who have bee involved in the Ivy project was sometimes chronic and severe.

The scheme, set up two years ago to help social workers and NHS staff deal with vulnerable 12-18 year olds who pose a high risk to themselves and to others, has so far worked with 109 of Scotland's most disturbed young people. Clients of the service, based at the University's Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice, have been involved in crimes such as stalking, fire-raising, physical violence, sexual violence and violent extremism such as making terrorist threats.

Tomorrow [Thurs] Dr Johnstone, who founded the Ivy Project, will be presented with an award by HRH the Princess Royal, patron of the Butler Trust, at St James's Palace in London. The Trusts's prestigious annual awards recognise outstanding contributions by people working in UK prisons, probation and youth justice.

The Ivy project offers support to workers in criminal justice, mental health and other settings who are trying to manage the most difficult and troubled young people in Scotland. Sometimes such young people will be too complex for social workers to deal with, but will not qualify for shortage-hit child and adolescent mental health (Camhs) services.

However many are on the pathway to serious criminality and violence.

The project offers comprehensive consultations to help build up a psychological profile of the young person involved, helping frontline workers weigh up the best approach. Unless childhood trauma is addressed, health or social workers are unlikely to be successful, Dr Johnstone added; "We see some children dismissed as attention seeking or manipulative. But 75-85 per cent of them have significant histories of trauma. Understanding their behaviour as a response to that can be the key."

While adults may have histories of trauma, for many young people it is still happening, she added, through traumatic contacts with absent parents, ongoing domestic violence or repeated moves of care placement.

For 46 per cent of cases, the first consultation is enough, but for more than half the project has then held a subsequent meeting with the child themselves to help explore what triggers violent behaviour and the need for specialist treatments. A small number of cases - fewer than 10 since the scheme launched with Scottish Government funding in September 2013 - result in intensive psychosocial treatment of the child, which can also involve their parents.

Demand for the service has been high, with 29 of Scotland's councils referring young people to it.

Dr Johnstone said the project could offer workers involved in high level risk assessment the space to think and assess a young person, and understand the roots of their offending.