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Teen Dating Violence

Last Modified: March 15, 2021

Healthy Mind, Safety & Prevention, Community

Teen dating violence

This post was written by Courtney L. Washington, PsyD, CSAYC, HSPP, clinical training director, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute

Think back to your first love. For many of us, these memories are buried deep in our brains. The intensity and overwhelming nature of these feelings can be all-consuming. I recall swooning over a new person as a tween and my mother working diligently to pull my feet back to the ground. All the while, I’m thinking, “She just doesn’t understand.” The intense feelings associated with lust, infatuation and new crushes overwhelm us all. Even adults have been guilty of disregarding logic when falling head over heels for someone new. For teens, this infatuation is more intense and challenging to navigate. Because of this, it’s crucial for young people to learn the skills necessary to create and maintain healthy relationships. With an open dialogue, education and support, it’s possible to prevent teen dating violence before it starts.

The teenage brain

Key components of the teenage brain prime them to get caught up in intense feelings. The intensity and lack of skill to manage these feelings can lead to vulnerability for violence. A psychologist, Erik Erikson, theorized that there are eight stages of psychosocial development throughout a person’s lifespan. The theory suggests personality develops through a series of phases, each offering a developmental conflict. Successful resolution of each conflict leads to mastery and a sense of self.

Adolescent development

The adolescent development stage (12-18 years of age) is called Identity versus Role Confusion. The primary task at this stage is answering the question, “Who am I?” Teens strive to find this sense of self primarily from their peer relationships. It is the first time in their life when they place more importance on the opinions and values of people outside of their home. Teens experiment with different roles, activities, clothes and behaviors. Successful resolution of this stage results in a stable sense of self. 

A teen’s brain development and chemistry further their vulnerability. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for impulse control, decision-making, judgment, empathy, insight, flexibility, emotion regulation, morality and fear modulation, is not fully developed until their early 20s. It’s no wonder many teenagers make unhealthy decisions. As these brain functions are underdeveloped, teens experience emotions and interactions more intensely and have a limited ability to regulate their reactions. Think of that break-up you were literally going to die from, we’ve all had at least one. Then, add in the influx of new and intense hormones plus grandiosity and egocentrism. Any parent can attest that it’s a recipe for chaos. Together, these factors can prime teens for turbulent, and at times, violent relationships.

What is teen violence?

Teen dating violence (TDV) is a form of intimate partner violence that occurs between two people in a close relationship. There are four types of TDV:

  • Physical violence: When a person harms or tries to hurt a partner through physical force.
  • Sexual violence: Forcing or attempting to force a partner into a sex act, sexual touching or non-physical sexual event like sexting) when the partner does not or cannot consent.
  • Psychological aggression: The use of verbal and non-verbal communication intended to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or exerting control over another person.
  • Stalking: A pattern of repeated unwanted attention and contact by a partner, causing fear or concern for one’s safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.
teen dating violence 2
How many teens experience TDV?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of teens encounter TDV each year. The following figures are from reported cases. As we know, intimate partner violence goes grossly underreported, so these numbers are likely an underrepresentation of the problem.

  • Nearly 1 in 11 female and 1 in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year.
  • About 1 in 9 female and 1 in 36 male high school students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the previous year.
  • 26% of women and 15% of men who were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their life first experienced violence from a partner before 18 years of age.
  • Sexual minority groups and some racial/ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by many types of violence.
How does TDV impact adolescents?

Dating violence at any age leads to complex issues, but in teens, it initiates a pattern of unhealthy relationships that can last a lifetime. Often, people continue to get into similar relationship dynamics, creating a vicious cycle of abuse. Violent relationship patterns lead to mental health struggles such as depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Teens may begin engaging in drugs or alcohol use as an unhealthy means of coping. Risky and delinquent behaviors can emerge as a byproduct. Lastly, thoughts of suicide are a major risk factor for teens who experience dating violence. 

How does our culture contribute to these patterns?

Many factors within our community contribute to dating violence for both teens and adults alike. Most connect to how we socialize the genders and teach people how they “should” behave as men and women. These messages are communicated through the media, education systems and adult role modeling. These prescribed gender roles portray a specific dynamic between what is considered masculine and feminine, how men and women “should” interact and contribute to relational interactions rooted in the exchange of power and control. Gender roles and expectations contribute to under-reporting by assault victims. This issue is of particular concern for men due to myths about how men are “supposed” to feel about sexual activity and violence in general. For women, the cultural perspective of women as sex objects (objectification) perpetuates beliefs about the self and women’s worth and value in relationships. These internalized beliefs fuel participation in a cycle of power and control. All of which is exacerbated by the lack of education about sex, dating and relationships.

Due to a lack of education and open dialogue, many teens turn to mainstream pornography for sexual education. Recent research from Indiana University by sex researcher Bryant Paul, PhD, and colleagues found that one-third of respondents reported being 12 or younger when they first saw pornography. Further research by this team found that of the scenes available on two major free pornography websites, 35% and 45% depicted violence and that women were the target of that violence 97% of the time. There were discrepancies based on race, as black women were more likely than white women to be the targets of aggression, and black men were more likely to be portrayed as the aggressor. Further, research has found a correlation between exposure to violent pornography and the perpetration of dating violence. Let’s be clear this does not suggest a causal relationship. However, it does raises concerns about reinforcing these behaviors when teens are first learning about intimate relationships.

What can we do to decrease TDV?

There are three factors that are key to decreasing violence in teens:

  • Education, education, education: There are many programs available to teach teens about intimate relationships, mutual respect, consent and interpersonal skills needed to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships. If we want teens to learn how to navigate these complex situations successfully, we need to teach them how to be involved in intimate relationships with the same intention and approach we take to other life skills.    
  • Open communication: Discussion about consent and respect in relationships can begin early at a developmentally appropriate level. The conversation can evolve and grow with the child. Preschoolers can learn about consent by asking permission before hugging other people. Kids and teens are curious and want to talk to trusted adults. Communicate that this is okay by answering their questions as honestly as possible.
  • Focus on modeling healthy relationships: Kids and teens are like sponges, and they re-enact what they see. If we want them to show respect toward others, we need to model it in the way we communicate to them, our partners, spouses, neighbors and strangers. Be mindful of the language you use when talking about relationships or people of romantic interest. The things we say matter. 

Imagine the difference we can make in the next generation with these three shifts in perspective. We can interrupt the cycle of violence before it starts. What an impact these changes can have on a teen’s future relationships, the life they lead and the model they provide to their children. This is a future I’d like to see and a world I’d like to help foster.


Helpful resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Safe Place

Love is respect
Call: 1-866-331-9474
Text: LOVEIS to 22522
Chat online
YMCA (Northeast Indiana)
Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Crisis Line

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