Editor’s note: The link between teen dating violence (TDV) and various indicators of emotional distress, such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, is well established. The psychological impact of TDV can be so severe that victims may consider suicide as their only recourse. This issue is a significant challenge within the adolescent population, potentially exacerbated by the influence of technology and social media. Survey data suggest that approximately 70% of adolescents and young adults have experienced psychological TDV, while 10-20% have experienced physical and/or sexual TDV. In this article, the authors analyse the issue and provide a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) with comprehensive answers aimed at increasing the understanding of both parents and teenagers.
Butterflies in your stomach.
Anticipating a first kiss or date.
The realm of romantic relationships occupies an important place in the lives of adolescents as they navigate their way into adulthood. These relationships, often full of excitement and anticipation, offer invaluable opportunities for personal growth. They serve as a platform for acquiring essential skills such as emotional management, conflict resolution and resilience in the face of heartbreak. However, it is important to recognise that not all seemingly idyllic partnerships remain so, as some can devolve into destructive patterns that prove difficult to escape.
In the realm of teen dating, a term commonly known as Teen Dating Violence (TDV) encompasses a range of aggressive and abusive behaviours that can manifest in different ways. These behaviours can be categorised as follows
- Psychological: This form of TDV includes acts such as insults, ridicule, invasive monitoring of a partner’s activities, unfounded accusations of jealousy, intimidating gestures, threatening looks or even destruction of property. The realm of psychological TDV has also expanded into cyberspace, where social media and mobile phones become channels for unwanted text messages or emails, amplifying the emotional damage inflicted.
- Physical: Domestic violence can also take a physical form, including acts such as pushing, slapping, grabbing, hitting, punching or kicking, which can result in physical harm.
- Sexual: Unwanted advances, ranging from non-consensual kissing or touching to forced intercourse, form the spectrum of sexual TDV.
It is important to note that TDV victimisation often occurs within the context of an ongoing relationship, although it can also transcend these boundaries. For example, sexual assault may occur between acquaintances during or after social gatherings, with college campuses being particularly vulnerable to such incidents. In addition, surveillance or aggressive stalking may occur following romantic rejection or an unwanted break-up.
When it comes to adolescent romantic relationships, awareness and understanding are key to fostering healthy relationships while protecting against the harmful aspects that can arise.
Prevalence and impact of TDV victimisation
The National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance Survey, conducted annually since 1991, has shed light on the incidence of teen dating violence (TDV) among high school students in the United States. In 2013, more than 13,000 students were surveyed, revealing disturbing statistics about TDV victimisation. Of those surveyed, approximately one in five females and one in ten males reported experiencing physical and/or sexual TDV from their dating partners within the previous year. These rates have remained relatively stable, with an overall average prevalence of approximately 10%, as observed in the most recent data from 2015.
In addition, a national survey that included the measurement of psychological TDV found that seven in 10 adolescents reported experiencing some form of TDV victimisation. Psychological TDV in particular is highly prevalent among adolescents and young adults, and its presence often serves as an indicator of potential physical and/or sexual TDV in later stages of a relationship.
Identifying problematic TDV behaviours
Due to the common nature of psychological TDV, it can be mistakenly perceived as a normal aspect of teenage romantic relationships, where insults, name-calling and jealousy are seen as expressions of affection. Worryingly, a significant number of adolescents and young adults even view physical TDV as playful behaviour, akin to horseplay or roughhousing. These perceptions contribute to the normalisation of TDV at this stage of development. However, research clearly shows that all forms of TDV cause emotional harm, and even when psychological or physical TDV occurs in a seemingly fun context, young people still describe it as unpleasant. It is therefore crucial to treat any manifestation of TDV with the utmost seriousness.
Consequences and effects
Psychological, physical and sexual TDV are all associated with a range of adverse outcomes. Depression, anxiety, somatic complaints (such as headaches, stomachaches and dizziness) and post-traumatic stress disorder have been linked to TDV victimisation. The psychological toll can be so severe that victims of TDV may contemplate or even attempt suicide. In addition, physical injuries may occur, leading to fear or avoidance of school. Engaging in risky behaviours, including substance abuse, unprotected sexual activity, and delinquent acts such as truancy or physical fighting, can both contribute to the onset of TDV victimisation and exacerbate its effects once it has taken hold.
Adversities associated with TDV
- Emotional distress (sadness, irritability, anger, anxiety) and physical ailments.
- Disturbing nightmares.
- Increased vigilance and cautious behaviour.
- Avoidance of social groups, activities or familiar places.
- Thoughts of suicide.
- Drug abuse (alcohol or illegal drugs).
- Having multiple sexual partners or unprotected sex.
- Skipping school.
- Episodes of aggressive outbursts or physical fights.
Does TDV affect both sexes?
Many studies suggest that young males are more vulnerable to forced sexual contact, including rape, than young females. Conversely, young women are more likely to engage in verbal abuse, jealous accusations, pushing or hitting. However, it is worth noting that young women often experience retaliation for their psychologically or physically abusive behaviour, putting them at greater risk of physical harm and emotional trauma than young men. Regardless, it remains evident that young women are more vulnerable to harm and anxiety in relationships characterised by ongoing conflict and escalating TDV where both partners are involved.
Trying to understand TDV
Teenage dating violence is a complex issue and numerous theories have been put forward to explain its nature. Some researchers attribute it to the pervasiveness of violence in our society and the messages that are conveyed about power dynamics and control. According to this perspective, TDV is seen as a means by which men assert dominance and control over women. On the other hand, others emphasise the relational aspect of TDV, highlighting how family experiences, individual characteristics, relationship conflicts and specific circumstances increase the likelihood of TDV victimisation. In our exploration, we will focus on some of the theories that help to understand who may be at risk of TDV and how such understanding can help individuals to assess their own level of risk.
Social learning theory
Social learning theory suggests that children and young people who are exposed to maltreatment during their upbringing, either directly or through witnessing it, are more likely to become involved in domestic violence later in life. This is because they tend to imitate the behaviours they observe in the adults around them. In addition, individuals who grow up in an environment characterised by maltreatment and violence often perceive aggressive and abusive behaviour as normal and acceptable, increasing the likelihood of either perpetrating domestic violence themselves or remaining in relationships where domestic violence occurs.
Child maltreatment in the context of TDV may include the following:
- Psychological maltreatment, which includes neglect, rejection or belittlement by a caregiver.
- Physical maltreatment, ranging from severe physical discipline to acts of aggression resulting in injury.
- Sexual maltreatment, such as unwanted kissing or fondling by a trusted adult or family member.
- Neglect, which includes failure to meet basic emotional, physical, educational or medical needs.
- Witnessing physical fights or violence between adults in the household.
The Target Vulnerability Theory
Theory of vulnerability
While the responsibility for TDV lies solely with the individual who chooses to engage in it, certain characteristics may make a potential victim more susceptible to TDV victimisation. These characteristics may undermine their ability to resist, recognise or prevent TDV victimisation.
There are several ways in which a person can become a target for TDV:
- Emotional distress: Anxiety and depression can contribute to feelings of inferiority, helplessness and low self-worth. These emotions can lead individuals to believe that TDV victimisation is inevitable and make them appear vulnerable and easy targets for TDV.
- History of victimisation and trauma: Individuals with a history of victimisation or exposure to traumatic events, as well as those with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociation, may have difficulty recognising dangerous situations and responding effectively to threats.
- Anger reactivity: The tendency to respond to provocation with intense anger is another characteristic that increases vulnerability to victimisation. Individuals who struggle with anger management are more likely to engage in TDV themselves, which can lead to them becoming victims of TDV in response to their own perpetration.
The influence of social circles on teen dating violence
The adage ‘you are known by the company you keep’ holds true when it comes to teen dating violence (TDV). During adolescence and young adulthood, friendships and peer relationships play a central role in personal development. However, associating with peers who tend to break the rules or engage in activities with delinquent or aggressive individuals increases the likelihood of becoming a victim of TDV14 . In particular, individuals who engage in rule-breaking behaviour often form partnerships with like-minded individuals22-24.
Rule-breaking behaviour encompasses a range of actions, including
- Running away from home
- Breaking curfew
- Playing truant
- Displaying aggressive behaviour
- Heavy or binge drinking
To prevent TDV, it’s important to address some common questions and concerns. Here are some suggestions:
Questioin: How can I tell if my relationship is at risk for TDV if my partner and I engage in name-calling and playful fighting?
Answer: Although name-calling and playful roughhousing may seem harmless, they can have detrimental effects and increase tolerance for domestic violence. It’s important to have open communication with your partner and assess your feelings about such behaviour. If you feel intentionally hurt, disrespected or frightened, your relationship may be at risk.
Question: Do teens outgrow TDV as they mature and learn to express emotions in healthier ways?
Answer: Yes, research suggests that as young adults reach important milestones and gain a better understanding of the negative effects of TDV, they are less likely to engage in or experience it. Significant consequences, such as legal problems, also deter some from continuing TDV.
Question: Can I find out if I’m susceptible to Domestic Violence before I start a relationship?
Answer: While growing up in a violent environment or experiencing victimisation may increase your chances of experiencing domestic violence, it does not determine your fate. Romantic relationships offer opportunities for personal growth and learning healthier patterns. Seeking professional help may be beneficial if you are struggling to cope with negative emotions or psychological difficulties.
Question: What if I’m aware of TDV in my relationship, but I’m afraid of the consequences of breaking up, such as social media stalking or unwanted attention?
Answer: Ending a relationship does not always stop domestic violence. It’s important to confide in trusted people, such as family, friends and teachers, who can help keep you safe. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be able to take legal action, such as obtaining a restraining order, if dating violence is recognised as a crime.
Question: My partner wants to end the relationship and I have threatened violence to stop him. What should I do?
Answer: Accepting the end of a relationship is difficult but necessary for personal growth. It’s important to understand that most relationships during adolescence and young adulthood are not permanent. It is not advisable to allow a potentially harmful relationship to continue. Ending the relationship, although difficult, may be the best decision for both partners.
Question: What can I do if I or someone I know is in an abusive relationship?
Answer: If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, seek help from the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or visit advocacy websites such as breakthecycle.org and loveisrespect.org. Remember, love should never cause harm.
- Vagi, K. J., O’Malley, E. O., Basile, K. C., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M. (2015). Teen dating violence (physical and sexual) among US high school students: Findings from the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(5), 474-82. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3577.
- Taylor, B. G., Mumford, E. A. (2016). A national descriptive portrait of adolescent relationship abuse results from the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(6), 963-888. Doi: 10.1177/0886260514564070
- Foshee, V. A., Bauman, K. E., Linder, F., Rice, J., & Wilcher, R. (2007). Typologies of adolescent dating violence: Identifying typologies of adolescent dating violence perpetration. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(5), 498-519. Doi: 10.1177/0886260506298829.
- Jouriles, E. N., Garrido, E., Rosenfield, D., & McDonald, R. (2009). Experiences of psychological and physical aggression in adolescent romantic relationships: Links to psychological distress. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(7), 451-460. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.11.005.
- Harned, M. S. (2001). Abused women or abused men? An examination of the context and outcomes of dating violence. Violence and Victims, 16(3), 269-285.
- Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Ruggiero, K. J., Kmett-Danielson, C., Resnick, H. S., Hanson, R. F., Smith, D. W., Saunders, B. E., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (2008). Prevalence and correlates of dating violence in a national sample of adolescents. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(7), 755-762. doi: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e318172ef5f.
- Exner-Cortens, D., Eckenrode, J., & Rothman, E. (2013). Longitudinal associations between teen dating violence victimization and adverse health outcomes. Pediatrics, 131(1), 71-78. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1029.
- Hamby, S., & Turner, H. Measuring teen dating violence in males and females: Insights from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. (2013). Psychology of Violence, 3(4), 323-339. doi: 10.1037/a0029706.
- Mulford, C., & Giordano, P.C. (2008). Teen dating violence: A closer look at adolescent romantic relationships. NIJ Journal, 261, 34-40.
- Capaldi, D. M., & Clark, S. (1998). Prospective family predictors of aggression toward female partners for at-risk young men. Developmental Psychology, 34(6), 1175-1188. doi: 10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.2065.
- Morris, A. M., Mrug, S., & Windle, M. (2015). From family violence to dating violence: Testing a dual pathway model. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(9), 1819-1835. doi: 10.1007/s10964-015-0328-7.
- Gomez, A. M. (2011). Testing the cycle of violence hypothesis: Child abuse and adolescent dating violence as predictors of intimate partner violence in young adulthood.Youth and Society, 43(1), 171-182. doi: 10.1177/0044118X09358313.
- Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., & Turner, H. (2012). Teen dating violence: co-occurrence with other victimizations in the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). Psychology of Violence, 2(2), 111-124. doi: 10.1037/a0027191
- Finkelhor, D., & Asdigian, N. L. (1996). Risk factors for youth victimization: Beyond a lifestyles/routine activities theory approach. Violence and Victims, 11(1), 3-19.
- Brooks-Russell, A., Foshee, V. A., & Ennett, S. T. (2013).Predictors of latent trajectory classes of physical dating violence victimization. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(4), 566-580. doi: 10.1007/s10964-012-9876-2.
- Breitenbecher, K. H. (2001). Sexual revictimization among women. A review of the literature focusing on empirical investigations. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 6(4), 415-432, doi: 10.1016/S1359-1789(00)00014-8.
- Chu, J.A. (1992). The revictimization of adult women with histories of childhood abuse. The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1(3), 259-269.
- Cascardi, M. (2016). From violence in the home to physical dating violence victimization: The mediating role of psychological distress in a prospective study of female adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(4), 777-792. doi: 10.1007/s10964-016-0434-1.
- Birkley, E. L., Eckhardt, C. (2015). Anger, hostility, internalizing negative emotions, and intimate partner violence perpetration: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 37, 40-56. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2015.01.002.
- Renner, L.M., & Whitney, S.D. (2012). Risk factors for unidirectional and bidirectional intimate partner violence among young adults. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(1), 40-52. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.07.007.
- Giordano, P. C., Copp, J. E., Longmore, M. A., & Manning, W. D. (2016). Anger, control, and intimate partner violence in young adulthood. Journal of Family Violence, 31(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1007/s10896-015-9753-3.
- Ozer, E. J., Tschann, J. M., Pasch, L. A., & Flores, E. (2004). Violence perpetration across peer and partner relationships: co-occurrence and longitudinal patterns among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34(1), 64-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2002.12.001.
- Kim, H. K., & Capaldi, D. M. (2004). The association of antisocial behavior and depressive symptoms between partners and risk for aggression in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 82-96.
- Testa, M., Livingston, J. A., & Leonard, K. E. (2003). Women’s substance use and experiences of intimate partner violence: A longitudinal investigation among a community sample. Addictive Behaviors, 28(9), 1649-1664.
- Giordano, P. C., Johnson, W. L., Manning, W. D., Longmore, M. A., & Minter, M. D. (2015). Intimate partner violence in young adulthood: Narratives of persistence and desistance. Criminology, 53(3), 330-365.
Michele Cascardi, an Associate Professor at William Paterson University, specializes in psychology. Her research spans over 25 years, focusing on violence in adolescent relationships. Her work on teen dating violence prevention has received federal funding and been published in esteemed journals like Journal of Adolescent Health, Partner Abuse, Journal of Primary Prevention, and Psychological Assessment. Recently, she explored the link between home violence, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder in teen dating violence victimization.