Addressing Teen Dating Violence

In recognition of National Youth Violence Prevention Week.

When you think of dating violence, the images that pop into your head are probably not images of 11 or 12 year olds. However, teen dating violence is epidemic at both the middle and high school levels, with most girls experiencing their first violent dating encounter by age 16. The statistics from the CDC and other sources are alarming.

  • Teen dating violence affects 1.5 million high school students (approximately 4 in 10 adolescents) in the U.S. every year.
  • Girls age 16-24 are at the highest risk of experiencing violence at rates TRIPLE the national average.
  • 72% of youth 11-14 are dating and 47% report some form of violence as a part of this relationship. As the age students begin to date lowers, so does the age at which violence begins.

Meanwhile, a majority of parents believe dating violence isn’t an issue for teenagers, and close to 100% of parents failed to correctly identify warning signs of dating violence.

What is teen dating violence?

Definition: Teen dating violence is a pattern of actual or threatened acts of physical, sexual, verbal or emotional aggression perpetrated by an adolescent against either a current or past dating partner with the intent of gaining power or control over the person the behavior is directed at.

While this definition sounds clear, many adolescents have a difficult time accurately defining abusive behavior. The vast majority of middle school students define control and jealousy as signs of true love rather as signs of abuse. Also, perpetrators of teen violence are more evenly split between male and female than in adult relationships. While young men tend to be more physical in their abuse, women often threaten to harm themselves, yell or engage in the physical acts of kicking, scratching or pinching.

Why is dating violence so common among teenagers?

Impulse Control Not Matured. Teenagers are still developing both their identity and their ability to manage emotions. Their brains’ ability to think through the consequences of a behavior prior to acting on their impulses is not fully developed until around 24 years old.

Looking for Acceptance Outside Self. Because their identities are still forming, teens frequently look for validation and acceptance from their dating partners. When they don’t receive this affirmation consistently, it can be devastating. They often lash out as a result.

Learning the “Rules” From Distorted Sources. Teens normally learn how to how to function within a dating context and how to manage emotions from the adults in their lives. Teens who do not have these adult connections instead draw information about how to date primarily from peers and the media. Unfortunately, relationships within media often are portrayed as controlling and possessive, leaving teens to believe this is what love looks like.

Experience Violence at Home. Additionally, 67 percent of young people in violent dating relationships have experienced violence within their homes. All of these factors combined contribute significantly to the rising rates of teen violence in the United States.

Warning signs a teen may be the victim

* Changes in behavior after starting a dating relationship, including always needing to be with partner or being fearful when not in contact with partner
* Quits being involved in activities he/she used to enjoy
* Feels he/she needs to respond immediately to all phone calls or texts from partner and acts fearful if he/she cannot do this
* Acts fearful around partner
* Excuses the behavior of partner
* Has suspicious bruises or explanations for injuries that don’t quite line up with injuries
* Grades beginning to fall
* Afraid to do things without checking with partner first
* Becomes overly submissive when with partner

Warning signs a teen may be a perpetrator

* Insults partner
* Tries to control how partner dresses or acts
* Being “bossy” or controlling of partner
* Is frequently texting or calling partner to check up on them
* Loses temper frequently or easily
* Blames other for his/her emotions
* Threatens to hurt him/herself or partner if there is even a perceived threat of breaking up
* Always having to be with partner or always talking about partner

What adults can do to help

Education and Awareness. Parents, teachers and other adults must understand how pervasive dating violence is and actively work to help teens prevent this and know what to do if it happens to them.

Talk About It. Teenagers learn how to be in healthy relationships from the adults in their lives. Parents and teachers need to talk about how they think about and interact with their partners. These conversations need to happen repeatedly, naturally, as a part of sharing life together.

When a young man hears a father figure talking about how his partner should always be treated with respect so he had to take time to “cool down” when he was angry rather than lash out at his partner, this provides a framework for what healthy relationships look like and for the importance of managing emotions. The same thing is true when a mother figure talks about the importance of not verbally lashing out at her partner when she is mad but rather taking time to figure out how to own her emotions, manage them, and talk about them constructively with her partner.

Be There. Adults also need to spend time with teenagers and their dating partners. By going out for pizza together, having them over to play games and just being in the house while they are hanging out, you see what the relationship is like and can provide guidance if something is beginning to be unhealthy.

Support Teens Who’ve Been Victimized. Teenagers frequently do not talk with anyone about violence when it occurs. Only 33 percent of youth dating violence is ever reported. Most teens don’t tell because they are afraid of not be believed or having their experience minimized or dismissed. They are also afraid adults will end the relationship for them and this scares them. Sometimes the risks involved are so high that adults must intervene, but whenever possible it is important to strengthen the teen involved so he/she wants to end unhealthy relationships rather than taking over and making decisions for them.

Additional Resources

Learn more about teen dating violence and how to prevent it at:
* Centers For Disease Control and Prevention
* Just Say Yes

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