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Dating Violence Common Among Teens

— U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Teen life, with its fads, crushes, clashes, and breakups, seems to be a world away from abusive relationships. Yet, there can be a dark side to all of the social drama. Many teens go through the same types of abuse—sexual, physical, and emotional—that some adults go through.

Dating violence is a pattern of violent and abusive behavior that someone uses against a girlfriend or boyfriend. 1 There is no single definition for “dating violence,” but the American Bar Association provides these statements to help us better understand dating violence among teens:

  • Dating violence occurs in a dating relationship when one person uses physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to gain power and to keep control over the other person. 2
  • Dating violence is a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by one partner to gain power and control over the other partner—the dynamics are the same for teens and adults. 3

Before violence starts, a teen may experience criticisms and demands from her boyfriend. For example, he might tell her what clothes to wear and whom she can hang out with. Teens may be confused by these demands and may not know how to deal with a dating partner’s mind games. Threats and rage may be followed by vows of love and pleas for forgiveness. Yet, over time, the violence can get worse.

Teens may be afraid to break up with their partners out of fear that their partner will hurt them or will harm himself or herself. A teen may want to be there to help a boyfriend or girlfriend, may hope that things will get better, or simply may not realize what can happen. Teen victims may begin to believe—wrongly—that they deserve the abuse.

If you have a teen who is dating, be alert for signs of abuse, both physical and emotional. Outward signs include:

  • Having bruises and injuries.
  • Changing the way she looks or dresses.
  • Dropping old friends.
  • Giving up things she cares about.

New friends as well as changes in attitudes, styles, hobbies, and school activities are common in young people. Still, they can be clues that a teen is being controlled by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Emotional abuse is harder to see than physical abuse since it happens over time and can take several forms, including:

  • Name-calling.
  • Put downs.
  • Blame.
  • Threats.
  • Envy.
  • Anger.
  • Attempts to control a partner’s dress, activities, and friendships. 4

A young person who suffers emotional abuse may become insecure, destructive, angry, or withdrawn. He also may abuse alcohol or drugs.

If a child has been exposed to domestic violence at home, it increases the chance that he or she will take on the role of either a “batterer” or a “victim” in his or her own relationships. Abuse can seem “normal” to youth who witness it in their own homes.

If you believe that your child is being abused, talk to her. Ask questions, set limits, and offer advice. You may want to seek help from counselors, community health agencies, and domestic violence or crisis centers. These and other resources can provide you with information and guidance about how to help your teen.

Keep in mind that your child may find it hard to talk about stress in her dating life. So, don’t show anger or push so hard that she pulls away. Instead, let her know that you respect her views and are there for her. Tell her that you care about her and want her to be safe.

If you believe that your child is abusing his dating partner, confront him about it and seek expert help.

*We refer to a child as “him” in some places and “her” in others. We do this for easier reading. All information applies to both boys and girls unless otherwise specified.

Additional Resources

Washington State Office of the Attorney General, 2004. Teen Dating Violence, FAQ: Relationship Violence—Help for Parents, last referenced 4/12/05.

The National Women’s Health Information Center, 2004. Violence Against Women: Dating Violence, last referenced 4/12/05.

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