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How to Address Teen Dating Violence and Relationship Abuse

Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is over. Now what?

Key points

  • Teen dating violence is both common and harmful.
  • Adolescent relationship abuse can include physical and sexual violence as well as psychological and technological abuse.
  • There are ways to teach young people about healthy relationships.

As February gives way to March, Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month has come to a close. Now it's time to leverage awareness-building about the problem of teen dating violence to inspire action that we can take year-round to prevent and respond to adolescent relationship abuse.

Here are three steps you can take:

1. Recognize that adolescent relationship abuse can take many forms.

The term "dating violence" can focus attention on physical violence – such as pushing or hitting. Indeed, across research studies, about one in five girls and one in five boys report physical victimization. However, dating violence doesn’t necessarily or only involve physical aggression. Rather, adolescent relationship abuse can take many forms – from sexual and emotional to technological. For example, approximately 14% of girls and 8% of boys across studies report sexual victimization in their adolescent dating relationships. Emotional aggression is even more common, including threats or actions that chip away at a young person’s self-worth. Emotional abuse can range from name-calling and controlling behaviors, such isolating a partner from family and friends, to belittling and shaming them. Rates of physical, sexual, and emotional victimization appear to be even higher for some groups of young people, including LGBT youth.

Adolescent relationship abuse also happens in cyber spaces. While both girls and boys report trying to control their dating partners through cell phones, social media, and other technology, girls are significantly more likely to be sexually coerced and victimized than boys through technology.

2. Take relationship abuse seriously.

Relationship abuse can be difficult to spot for many reasons, including that abusive behaviors can occur alongside healthy or desirable behaviors. Sometimes there are warning signs across patterns of behaviors (check out this resource from the organization Love Is Respect), but not always.

Depending on how teen dating violence is defined, it can appear to be relatively commonplace. For example, researchers have theorized that some forms of less severe aggression, such as pushing, occur when young people have yet to build effective conflict resolution and emotion regulation skills to use in dating relationships. In the absence of these skills, they may resort to aggression to solve problems in relationships.

When something is commonplace, we can be tempted to take such behaviors less seriously. However, adolescent relationship abuse can have serious consequences. For example, physical violence can result in injuries, particularly for girls and as youth get older. In addition, dating violence is linked to poor academic outcomes as well as psychological distress, from depression and suicide risk to disordered eating and substance use.

The consequences of adolescent relationship abuse can go on for years. For example, girls who were raped in adolescence were more likely than peers to be sexually assaulted during their first year of college. Further, sexual assault in adolescence has been linked with negative health outcomes among women years later, ranging from overall health to gynecologic health.

Dating violence can also turn deadly. When adolescent homicides occur, most victims are girls, and perpetrators are current or former dating partners. Antecedents to the murders often include partner jealousy, break ups, or arguments.

3. Help young people build skills for healthy relationships.

Across research studies, several factors have been linked to teen dating violence perpetration that shed light on actions we can take to prevent relationship abuse. For example, one meta-analysis found that dating violence was more likely when young people anticipated benefits of using violence or had friends who used violence. On the flip side, conflict resolution skills seem to protect against perpetrating teen dating violence.

Fortunately, there are several research-based approaches available to teach young people skills for building healthy relationships and decreasing relationship aggression. While prevention programs differ, most are offered through schools and have several things in common. For example, programs typically teach young people about distinctions between healthy and abusive behaviors in relationships. Programs also tend to focus on helping young people develop skills and attitudes necessary to engage in positive (rather than abusive) behaviors, such as when resolving conflict or communicating. Commonly, programs also explore expectations about gender roles and equity. In good news, prevention programs are linked with positive changes in young people’s knowledge, attitudes, and reports of perpetration across studies.

Regardless of whether you live in a community that offers that formal dating violence prevention programming, there’s a role for each of us in preventing and responding to adolescent relationship abuse. For example, caregivers can support young people by talking about healthy relationships, including topics such as setting boundaries, consent, and resolving conflict. We can all help young people access resources that address common questions about healthy relationships, such as those available through the organization Love Is Respect or VAWNet. We can learn about therapy and other support services in our communities to be prepared to connect young people with local services when needed.

Importantly, we can also each work to help other people see their shared interest in preventing and responding to adolescent relationship abuse. After all, our communities lose out when young people’s potential is diminished by abuse.

More from Anne P. DePrince Ph.D.
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