As children develop into adolescents, the topography of bullying develops as well. Students begin interacting more frequently with opposite-sex peers and romantic relationships emerge. Unfortunately, the same problems some students have with their same-sex peers transfer into these new, romantic relationships. Research has shown that there is a link between bullying, dating violence, and sexual harassment.

Prevalence and Trends

Bullying behavior peaks before students reach high school. There is a steady increase in bullying from elementary school through middle school before declining in high school (1& 2). However, sexual harassment and dating violence tend to have opposite trends. Physical sexual harassment is more commonly found among older high school students than among early high school or late middle school students. In two national surveys, 81% of students reported being sexually harassed during their school careers (3 & 4) is also important to note that sexual harassment is a problem not isolated to high schools. Roughly one-third of students reported that their first experience with sexual harassment occurred in elementary school (3 & 4). When examining the prevalence of dating violence, it often depends on how it is defined. The prevalence of dating violence has been found to be as low as 9% when not including verbal abuse (5) and as high as 55% (6) when including verbal abuse. Prevalence rates in the majority of studies range between 20% and 40% (7).

Links Between Bullying, Dating Violence, and Sexual Harassment

How students are involved in bullying influences their involvement in dating violence and sexual harassment. Students who are not involved in bullying are significantly less likely to experience physical dating violence compared to students who are bullies or bully-victims. When examining emotional abuse in dating relationships, bully-victims report the most victimization. However, those who are victims of bullying report the least amount of emotional abuse in dating relationships. When it comes to sexual harassment, bully-victims are more likely than other groups to be involved. Victims of bullies are also sexually harassed more often than students uninvolved in bullying, but at similar rates as bullies (9). Overall, bully-victims are the group most at-risk for developing unhealthy romantic relationships in adolescence and young adulthood.

Bullies Who Date

Students who are involved in bullying often have different experiences than those who are not involved in bullying. In general, adolescents engaging in bullying behaviors are at-risk for developing unhealthy romantic relationships. When compared to their peers, bullies report the following behaviors:

  • Experiencing more physical and social aggression with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Physical aggression ranges in severity from slapping a partner to choking, punching, or beating up a partner. Social aggression includes acts such as spreading rumors or excluding a partner from group activities.
  • Describing their relationship with their partner as less emotionally supportive and having less equality than non-bullies.
  • Placing more of an importance on their romantic relationships than their peers.
  • Dating at an earlier age. In one study, the average age for bullies to begin dating was at the end of their 10th year, while their non-bully peers began dating around the middle of their 11th year.
  • Engaging in more advanced forms of dating (i.e., more one-on-one dating than group activities) than their peers. Bullies spend more time outside of school with a partner and, overall, develop romantic relationships earlier than their peers (9).

Why Do Bullies Have Unhealthy Romantic Relationships?

While there is no clear-cut answer, researchers do have a good idea as to why bullies have unhealthy romantic relationships. The early social interactions students have with their peers influence the beliefs and attitudes they bring into their romantic relationships. Students who are surrounded by peers modeling appropriate social interactions are more likely to prescribe to these norms. If adolescents have emotionally supportive friendships, they are more likely to have supportive romantic relationships as well. Similarly, those who have friendships marked by intimidation and coercion are more at-risk for developing unhealthy romantic relationships (10 & 11). Furthermore, those involved in dating violence are more likely to have witnessed parental violence and view violence in dating relationships as acceptable (6, & 12). Being raised in a home where it is acceptable to resolve disputes through aggression provides adolescents with poor problem-solving skills for their own romantic relationships in the future. 

As children become adolescents, their behaviors become more complex.  It is important to realize that although the rates of bullying decrease over time, it may be that the bullying is simply taking on different forms, such as sexual harassment and dating violence. Educators and parents should be aware of the complexity of social relationships during this time and need to realize that with increased interest and opportunities, students who bully may also be engaging in sexual harassment and dating violence.


1. Hoover, J., Oliver, R., & Hazler, R. (1992). Bullying: Perceptions of adolescent victims in the  Midwestern USA. School Psychology International, 13, 5-16. doi: 10.1177/0143034392131001

2. Pellegrini, A., & Bartini, M. (2001). Dominance in early adolescent boys: Affiliative and aggressive dimensions and possible functions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 47, 142-163. doi: 10.1353/mpq.2001.0004

3. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (1993) Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America’s schools (No. 923012). Harris/Scholastic Research, Washington, DC.

4. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (2001) Hostile hallways: Sexual harassment and bullying in schools. Harris/Scholastic Research: Washington, DC.

5. Roscoe, B., & Callahan, J. (1985). Adolescents’ self-report of violence in families and dating relations. Adolescence, 20, 545-553.

6. O’Keefe, M. (1998). Factors mediating the link between witnessing interparental violence and dating violence. Journal of Family Violence, 13, 39-57.

7. Lewis, S. F., & Fremouw, W. (2000). Dating violence: A critical review of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 150-127.

8. Espelage, D. L. & Holt, M. K. (2007). Dating violence & sexual harassment across the bully-victim continuum among middle and high school students. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 36, 799-811.

9. Connolly, J., Pepler, D., Craig, W., & Taradash, A. (2000). Dating experiences of bullies in early adolescence. Child Maltreatment, 5, 299-310. doi:10.1177/1077559500005004002

10. Connolly, J., & Goldberg, A. (1999). Romantic relationships in adolescence: The role of friends and peers in their emergence and development. In W. Furman, B. B. Brown, & C. Feiring (Eds.), The development of romantic relationships in adolescence (pp. 266-290). New York:Cambridge Press.

11. Furman, W. (1999). The role of peer relationships in adolescent romantic relationships. In W.A. Collins & B. Laursen (Eds.), Minnesota symposium on child development, Volume 29:Relationships as developmental contexts (pp. 133-154). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

12. Baldry, A. (2003). Bullying in schools and exposure to domestic violence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 713-732. doi:10.1016/S0145-2134(03)00114-5