Closeup photo of a boy and girl holding handsDating violence- defined as physical, psychological, or sexual violence towards a romantic partner- is a common experience for teens. Recent research by the American Psychological Association states that 1 in 3 American teens (aged 14-20) have experienced dating violence. The actual numbers are slightly more complex: 1 in 3 male teens and 2 in 5 female teens have been the victim of dating violence, and 1 in 3 teens report committing dating violence.

When we think about violence, we often think about someone being punched or beaten. Physical abuse is a devastating type of dating violence, but psychological and sexual violence also hurt keenly and can cause lasting damage.

Why is this so common? What can we do about it? How do parents try to protect their teens from ending up being abused- or being the abuser?

Dr. Evans already addressed the topic of dating violence in an older post, with some excellent advice to parents. In this post, I will discuss more information from the study, and some additional ways to educate and empower your teen.

Study highlights:

  • A teen can be both a perpetrator and a victim. 25% of young men and 29% of young women reported both committing dating violence and suffering it. The reasons for this are likely complex; it could be that teens are learning about romantic relationships from abusive partners, that certain teens have poor anger and impulse control, and/ or that teens are familiar with violence in their home setting. Relationships where partners are both abusing and being abused are very concerning. You don’t want your teen in that situation.
  • Boys are also at risk for physical abuse. Interestingly, the study found that young women are more likely to be physically violent towards young men than vice versa. Personally, I think this is a societal problem. Think of the movies: a man who hits a woman is immediately a villain, but how many heroines have given some guy a good smack? It’s important to teach girls, as well as boys, that using physical violence to solve a problem is never acceptable towards a romantic partner- or anyone else.
  • Teens who have been bullies are at risk for being violent. The study found that teens who had a history of bullying peers had a seven times higher risk for committing dating violence. It makes sense that children who approach social interactions aggressively would approach romantic interactions aggressively. It is incredibly important that your teen knows bullying is not okay– and why.

Actions you can take to help your teen:

  • Recognize increased risk for LGBTQ teens.  Teens suffering from depression or shame related to their sexual orientation or gender identity may be more likely to suffer through abuse, believing they deserve it. A psychologically violent dating partner may threaten to “out” them. The best thing parents can do is communicate unconditional love and support to LGBTQ teens, and work hard to nurture their sense of self-worth. The LGB and Transgender posts have information about helping your teen seek healthy dating relationships.
  • Teach your teen how to respond to romantic disappointments. Dating is full of emotional betrayals. Partners may cheat, lie, or end the relationship suddenly. Some teens consider violence an appropriate response to bad behavior from a dating partner. When Chris Brown physically assaulted Rihanna, responses from teens included blaming her for provoking a beating. Teach your teen that it is never okay to use physical, sexual, or psychological violence in response to a romantic partner’s actions. Teach them how to deal with heartbreak while controlling the impulse to hurt someone.
  • Don’t forget to teach your teen about psychological abuse. Physical and sexual abuse are terrible experiences to go through. However, psychological violence can be just as devastating, and many survivors of abusive relationships have said the psychological violence was the worst. Psychological violence includes name-calling, derogatory statements, threats, put-downs in public, spreading rumors, jealous behaviors, isolating people from friends and family, and controlling the victim. It is a pattern of behavior that can leave victims feeling worthless, helpless, and alone.
  • Remind your teen to ask themselves what they would do if someone did it to their best friend. It can be hard for teens to keep a calm head when they’re in love. It can be easier to determine what they would say if a loved one were in a certain situation. Ask your teen to do something for you: If they’re in a relationship, examine whether they would approve of their best friend being treated they way they’re being treated. If they wouldn’t, it may be time to end, or at least change, their interactions with their partner.

This is a heavy, but important topic. I’d love to hear your experiences talking to your teen about this.