Teen Dating Violence

Teen Dating Violence: When and How Relationships Become Damaging and Unhealthy

There’s an epidemic among teens and young adults, one that’s obvious in some respects and yet hiding in plain sight. It’s a phenomenon that’s easy to ignore, minimize or pretend isn’t happening, yet also so widespread and pervasive that it’s alarming. We’re referring to a dating relationship between young partners that morphs into a damaging and unhealthy relationship. How does this transformation even happen?

The statistics are staggering, startling and serious. Multiple organizations estimate that 1,500,000 high school students in America experience physical abuse at the hands of a dating partner each year. One-third of adolescents are victims of sexual, emotional, physical or verbal abuse. One in 10 are purposefully hit, slapped or physically harmed.

Girls and young women at higher risk

The teen dating violence trend is more ominous and threatening for girls and young women, who are three times more susceptible to dating violence than their male counterparts, with 94 percent of high school girls age 16-19 and 70 percent of collegiate women age 20-24 being victimized. With such daunting odds, it’s a wonder that dating hasn’t been banned!

Moreover, this serves as a gateway to other undesirable situations like substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors and domestic violence. It also routinely goes unreported or under-reported to anyone else. The risks of pregnancy and suicide rise exponentially within this group of young women, with rates that are 6-10 times higher than the rest of the population. Only one-third of dating violence victims ever breathe a word of it to another person.

Help your teen identify what constitutes healthy, unhealthy or abusive behaviors

What constitutes dating has changed over the last generation and can include traditional dating (dinner and a movie), going out with friends in groups, “hooking up” and everything in-between. Generally speaking, these relationships fall within a spectrum that can be described as healthy, unhealthy or abusive. Characteristic of a healthy relationship are issues like trust, honesty, respect, equality or communication, while an unhealthy one would involve distrust, dishonesty, inconsiderate behavior and poor communication. Abusive relationships see unhealthy traits go a step further, and may involve unsubstantiated accusations and perpetual blaming, as well as isolating and manipulative behaviors. It’s taking bad to an extreme, threatening and dangerous level.

Types of unhealthy or abusive patterns

While some categories of unhealthy dating fall into obvious categories such as physical, verbal, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, other categories are subtle and less apparent. Consider, for example, digital abuse. What may begin innocently enough as a straightforward sharing of passwords between partners for smart phones, tablets, computers, social media or email accounts can quickly devolve into a situation involving control, power and intimidation. It’s a slippery slope from what seems like a simple matter of trust into an avalanche of coercive behavior that reaches terminal velocity in a hurry. Victims are somewhat disinclined to admit they’ve contributed to a negative situation, either because they’re unsure how to fix it or embarrassed by the content that might be exposed.

The same can be said about unhealthy financial situations, where one party seems to always be paying for the other person’s spending habits and indulgences. Again, it’s more common than we may want to acknowledge, and it’s potentially devastating for the one who’s being victimized. Ask yourself how often have you witnessed some variation of this form of abuse?

A rare yet terrifying scenario involves stalking, in which one person is perpetually involved in the affairs of their partner — showing up unannounced at work or home, being unexpectedly present at inopportune times, hovering, and constantly bullying or harassing someone. While stalking is limited to about one percent of dating relationships, it’s a situation that too often ends in tragedy or criminal behavior. It represents a clear case of obsession and may require the engagement of local law enforcement officials to make it stop, including obtaining a restraining order if necessary.

Finally, every unhealthy or abusive relationship demands that it be terminated, a decision that needs to be made with an emphasis on personal safety and sustainability into the future. It’s a process that must navigate sensitive areas like guilt, fear, anger, control, resentment and the underlying threat of physical harm. If you’re faced with a break-up that has the potential to go awry, be sure you involve others (friends, parents, teachers, advocates) who know your intentions, make the break-up in public (although not necessarily face-to-face), and be steadfast, insistent and firm about your decision (this is no time to be wishy-washy or forgiving). There are many resources that may prove helpful in providing guidance and advice regarding this unpleasant scenario, including LoveisRespect.org, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Children’s Safety Network and BreaktheCycle.org.

If you are a victim of abuse or know someone in an abusive relationship, free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365.

  • Chat at www.loveisrespect.org
  • Text LOVEIS to 22522
  • Call 1-866-331-9474

Identifying ways for teens to enjoy healthy dating relationships is part of the advocacy efforts of organizations like SAFY. SAFY works with families across service systems to enhance their capacity to care for and protect their children. SAFY’s behavior health services help children, youth and young adults build lifelong skills for maintaining mental and emotional well-being.

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