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Abusive Teen Relationships: Understanding Teen Dating Violence

March 03, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

This past week, a lot of attention has been given to domestic violence, especially the abuse of women. And, our college campuses have seen a continued problem with sexual abuse and harassment of young women and men, much of it related to binge drinking. Unfortunately, teen dating violence is widespread and can have serious long-term and short-term effects; and, many kids do not report it because they are afraid or ashamed to tell friends and family.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “teen dating violence is defined as the physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional violence within a dating relationship, including stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and might occur between a current or former dating partner.”


Regrettably dating abuse is not uncommon; nationwide nearly 1.5 million high school students experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year and more than 30% of teens are victims of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

The 2013 U.S. government annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey included questions about purposeful physical violence in a dating relationship such as “being hit, slammed into something or injured with an object or weapon” or being forced to "do sexual things that you did not want to do."

About 13,000 students in grades 9 through 12 responded to the survey. About three-quarters of boys and girls said they dated. Of those, 21 percent of females reported dating violence within the previous year, while 10 percent of males did.

Sadly only one of three teens who were in a violent dating relationship ever told anyone about the abuse. And, in a survey of parents, more than 80% believe that teen dating abuse is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it’s an issue.

Consequences of Teen Dating Violence

The CDC notes that “as teens develop emotionally, they are heavily influenced by experiences in their relationships. Healthy relationship behaviors can have a positive effect on a teen’s emotional development. Unhealthy, abusive, or violent relationships can have severe consequences and short- and long-term negative effects on a developing teen.” 

Teens and young adults who experience dating violence are more likely to experience the following:

  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Development of eating disorders
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Involvement in antisocial behaviors such as engaging in risky sex, and further domestic violence
  • Thoughts about suicide and a higher rate of suicide attempts

Risks for Dating Violence

A teen’s ability to communicate with a boyfriend or girlfriend, manage uncomfortable emotions like anger and jealousy, and treat others with respect are a few ways to keep relationships healthy and nonviolent. Teens receive messages about how to behave in relationships from friends, adults in their lives, entertainment such as music and movies, and the media. All too often these examples suggest that violence in a relationship is normal, but violence is never acceptable. 

One of the most popular young music stars is Nick Jonas whose recent hit song Jealousy describes an abusive relationship. In the song, Jonas uses the following lyrics to describe the jealous boyfriend, “I’m puffing my chest—I’m getting red in the face—you can call me obsessed—Protective or possessive—call it…aggressive—It’s my right to be hellish”

According to the CDC, factors that increase risk for harming a dating partner include:

  • Belief that dating violence is acceptable
  • Depression, anxiety, and other trauma symptoms
  • Aggression towards peers and other aggressive behavior
  • Substance use
  • Early sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners
  • Having a friend involved in dating violence
  • Conflict with partner
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence in the home

Additionally, teens who are victims of dating violence in high school are at higher risk for victimization during college.

Signs of An Abusive Relationship

Relationships exist on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy to abusive and it can be hard to tell when a behavior crosses the line. Warning signs that you may be involved in an abusive relationship include when your boyfriend or girlfriend:

  • harms you physically in any way
  • tries to control different aspects of your life, such as how you dress or who you hang out with
  • frequently humiliates you or makes you feel unworthy either when you’re alone or in front of other people
  • threatens to harm you, or themselves, if you leave the relationship
  • twists the truth to make you feel you are to blame for any conflicts in the relationship
  • demands to know where you are at all times 
  • becomes jealous or angry when you want to spend time with others and tries to isolate you from friends and family
  • makes unwanted sexual advances that make you uncomfortable


It is important to learn about this issue to help protect your children from abuse but also to recognize and understand how to help a teen who is or may become abusive. One of the most important actions that parents and grandparents can take is to use teachable moments with their kids. Anytime you are with your kids and see an act of domestic violence in a movie, TV show, or on the news, have a discussion about what happened and strongly voice your disapproval of such behavior. Last fall, I was watching the news with my preteen granddaughters who saw the videotape of Ray Rice beating his fiancé in an elevator. I turned off the TV and the whole family, including their parents, had an interesting and very worthwhile conversation about relationship abuse.

The following are excellent resources for parents and kids about the issue: 

LoveIsRespect.org provides excellent information about dating violence and what a teen can do to get help. The site includes details about dating basics, how to recognize abuse, how and where to get help, and how to get involved to end abuse. The site is interactive with a teen blog and several quizzes to determine if a relationship is abusive. This site also is the online home of the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, a community where teens can find support and information to understand dating abuse. Your teen can talk one-on-one with a trained advocate 24/7 who can offer support and access to appropriate resources.

TeensHealth.org has several in-depth articles about abusive relationships; start with Healthy Relationships = Respect & Trust 

CDC Teen Dating Violence has information about the issue as well as access to other government sites and resources that deal with teen abuse. 

Some Thoughts for the Community

In a press release written about Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Emily Rothman, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, noted that,  "Parents, schools and pediatricians need to ask themselves: Am I talking to the teens in my life about the importance of respect in a dating relationship? When was the last time we had a conversation about the importance of consent when it comes to sex, not just the importance of using a condom? We have already learned quite a lot about what causes dating violence, but solutions are still few and far between, and investments in prevention will undoubtedly pay off.”

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