High School Dating Abuse

It’s more common than you think and can have devastating effects.

Posted Oct 20, 2016

© Susan McQuillan
Source: © Susan McQuillan

Inappropriate physical and sexual behavior gets plenty of media coverage when it occurs on and around college campuses or in the lives of politicians, but less so when it happens at the high school level. Yet abuse affects 1 out of every five female and one out of every 10 male high school students who date.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines dating aggression as physical, sexual, or psychological hostility or attacks that occur between current or past dating partners, and can even be extended to stalking and other forms of harassment. Sexual aggression is any form of unwanted or sexual behavior, from nonconsensual contact to oral, vaginal or anal rape.

A study published in the May 2015 issue of JAMA Pediatrics found that, among high school students who dated, more than 20 percent of female students and more than 10 percent of male students experienced some form of physical or sexual dating violence sometime during the year prior to the study reporting. For victims of abuse, the effects of these types of violent actions, often long-lasting, can include depression and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and even suicide attempts. In the above study, researchers found that girls who experienced both physical and sexual dating violence were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who experience one or the other, and boys who experienced both were almost three times as likely.

Two thirds of teenagers in abusive dating relationships never tell anyone about the abuse, so it is no surprise that many parents are unaware of the high rate of teen dating violence in this country, or don’t think it is an issue in their lives. Similarly, most parents believe they would recognize signs if their child was in an abusive dating relationship.

In a report released last year by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, more than 90 percent of high school students acknowledged being aware of and having the opportunity to intervene in situations involving dating aggression or sexual aggression, but often did not. They were most likely to speak up or otherwise get involved when they saw a friend’s boyfriend or girlfriend behaving in a jealous or controlling manner, when they heard comments such as “she deserved to be raped,” or when they believed their friend was being abused or was in a potentially dangerous situation. Fewer students were likely to express concern or disapproval over sexual jokes, comments, and gestures. Surprisingly, students were least likely to get involved when a friend appeared to be drunk at a party and were taken out of the room.

What stops friends from intervening? According to the University of New Hampshire report, some of the biggest barriers were a desire to avoid drama, fear of social repercussion, the nature of their own relationship with either the victim or the perpetrator or a feeling that the behavior wasn’t actually abusive.

Where does all this leave the victim of high school dating abuse? Often traumatized, says Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, psychotherapist, trauma specialist, and senior clinician at Newport Academy, a nationwide treatment center for teenagers and their families.

Dating abuse often starts in high school, or even earlier, but doesn’t end there. Adult victims of rape and other forms of physical or psychological abuse have reported some form of earlier intimate partner violence as early as 11 years of age. Teenagers who are victims of dating abuse in high school are at higher than average risk of similar victimization when they get to college.

“Dating abuse at any age is a significant form of trauma,” Monroe points out. “Whenever a teen experiences such abuse, there are going to be emotional symptoms of trauma such as depression, anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem.”

When someone is abused, she explains, it creates a sense of disempowerment and loss of control. These are the feelings that lead to psychological disorders and behavior such as substance abuse, cutting, eating disorders, and sexual rigidity. Some teenagers become more sexual in their behavior after experiencing dating abuse because they now derive their sense of self-worth from the physical contact.

Friends, family, educators, and others who are involved with teens need to recognize that these behaviors are not only the possible result of teenage abuse, they are warning signs; they are cries for help. For more information on teenage sexual abuse prevention, intervention, and support, check out the resources at U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public site

© Susan McQuillan

Source Links:

Newport Academy 

Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW 


CDC Dating Abuse Statistics  http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/teen_datin...

Vagi KJ, O’Malley Olsen E, Basile KC. Teen dating violence (Physical and Sexual) among US high school students: Findings from the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. JAMA Pediatrics. May 2015;169(5):474-482 http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2173573

Edwards KM, Eckstein RP, Rodenhizer-Stampfli KA.  Should I Say Something? Dating and Sexual Aggression Bystander Intervention among high school youth. University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy. National Issue Brief #92 Fall 2015. http://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=carsey