Here are three steps you can take:
1. Recognize that abuse in teen relationships can take many forms.
The term “dating violence” may focus attention on physical violence – such as pushing or hitting. In fact, in research studies, about one in five girls and one in five boys report physical victimization. However, dating violence does not necessarily or only involve physical aggression. Rather, teen relationship abuse can take many forms – from sexual and emotional to technological. For example, approximately 14% of girls and 8% of boys across all studies report sexual victimization in their teenage dating relationships. Emotional aggression is even more common, including threats or actions that destroy a young person’s self-esteem. Emotional abuse can range from name calling and controlling behaviors such as 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 youth groups, including LGBT youth.
Teen relationship abuse also happens in cyberspace. Although 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 detect for a variety of reasons, including abusive behaviors that can occur alongside healthy or desirable behaviors. Sometimes there are red flags in behavior patterns (check out this resource from Love Is Respect), but not always.
Depending on how teen dating violence is defined, it can seem relatively common. For example, researchers have theorized that some less severe forms of aggression, such as pushing, occur when young people have not yet developed effective conflict resolution and emotion regulation skills to use in dating relationships. In the absence of these skills, they may resort to aggression to resolve relationship issues.
When something is common, we may be tempted to take these behaviors less seriously. However, teen relationship abuse can have serious consequences. For example, physical violence can result in injuries, particularly in girls and as young people age. Furthermore, dating violence is linked to poor academic results as well as psychological distress, from depression and suicide risk to disordered eating and substance use.
The consequences of teen relationship abuse can last for years. For example, girls who were raped as teenagers were more likely than their peers to be sexually assaulted during their freshman year of college. Furthermore, sexual assault in adolescence has been linked to negative health outcomes among women years later, ranging from general health to gynecological health.
Dating violence can also turn deadly. When adolescent homicides occur, most victims are girls and the perpetrators are current or former dating partners. The antecedents of the murders usually include jealousy of the partner, separations or arguments.
3. Help youth develop healthy relationship skills.
In research studies, several factors have been associated with the perpetration of dating violence among teens, which sheds light on actions we can take to prevent relationship abuse. For example, a meta-analysis found that dating violence was more likely when young people anticipated the benefits of using violence or had friends who used violence. On the other hand, conflict resolution skills seem to protect against the perpetration of dating violence among adolescents.
Fortunately, there are several research-based approaches available to teach young people skills for building healthy relationships and decreasing relationship aggression. While prevention programs are different, most are offered in schools and have several things in common. For example, programs often teach young people about the distinctions between healthy and abusive behaviors in relationships. Programs also tend to focus on helping young people develop the skills and attitudes needed to engage in positive (rather than abusive) behavior, such as conflict resolution or communication. Commonly, programs also explore expectations about gender roles and equity. The good news is that prevention programs are linked to positive changes in youth knowledge, attitudes, and reports of perpetration across all studies.
Regardless of whether you live in a community that offers formal dating violence prevention programs, each of us has a role in preventing and responding to abuse in teen relationships. For example, caregivers can support young people by talking about healthy relationships, including topics such as setting boundaries, consent and conflict resolution. We can all help young people access resources that address common questions about healthy relationships, such as those available through Love Is Respect or VAWNet. We can learn about therapy and other support services in our communities so we are prepared to connect young people with local services when needed.
Importantly, each of us can also work to help others see our shared interest in preventing and responding to abuse in teen relationships. After all, our communities lose out when the potential of young people is diminished by abuse.