Employee & Community Health

Teen dating violence: What is it and what can you do? 

2/13/2017 by Dr. Janna Gewirtz O'Brien

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Adolescent relationship abuse, also known as teen dating violence, affects one in five teenage girls and one out of every 10 teenage boys. It includes emotional, physical, verbal or sexual abuse of a dating or sexual partner, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 

Partners should never punch, hit, kick, slap or hurt their significant other. But sexual violence is not uncommon among teenagers and often occurs in the setting of a dating relationship. In one large national survey, 14% of adolescent girls and 6% of boys reported this type of violence in the past year. It includes sexual coercion, non-consensual sexual contact and rape. By college, approximately half of young women report at least one such experience. 

Social media, text messaging and cell phones have made things even more complicated. Controlling partners often will demand constant access to their partner. Frequent checking of the partner's text messages, social media sites and cell phone may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship. 

Recognizing an unhealthy relationship

Teen dating violence often goes unrecognized or dismissed as unimportant or "puppy love," say authors Miller and Sigel in their 2016 article, "Youth Violence and Intervention in Clinical and Community-based Settings." Some signs that a relationship is unhealthy include: 

  • Explosive anger
  • Jealousy
  • Putting a partner down
  • Isolating a significant other from friends and family
  • Making false accusations
  • Being possessive or controlling
  • Pressuring a partner to do things against their will
  • Manipulating birth control
  • Looking through a partner's cell phone
  • Calling a partner names
  • Swearing or screaming at a partner

The health impact

Teen dating violence has a major impact on adolescent health. It's associated with unintended teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, injuries, poor mental health, drug use and unsatisfactory academic performance. 

What parents can do

Parents have an important role to play in promoting healthy relationships from an early age, recognizing teen dating violence among children and their peers, and supporting teens as they navigate their early relationships. 

  • Talk to your teens about healthy relationships. See the AAP's Healthy Children website for more tips about building resilience and promoting positive relationships. 
  • Role model healthy relationships. Show your children what it means to be engaged in a healthy relationship. This includes demonstrating loving and peaceful conflict resolution with friends and partners. 
  • Recognize signs of an unhealthy relationship. If your teen shows signs that he or she may be in an abusive or violent relationship, talk to them about it and get help. Your health care providers are happy to help connect you and your teen with resources for developing more positive relationships and getting out of relationships that are potentially dangerous. 
  • Empower your teen to intervene. Encourage all teenagers to be "positive upstanders" when they see peers who are engaged in disrespectful, harmful or violent behaviors. 
  • Engage in community activities. Teenagers who are involved in community groups, sports and other activities are less likely to engage in violence. 
  • Promote healthy use of the internet, which includes: balance (with non-internet activities), boundaries and communication with parents. See the AAP's tips for healthy internet use. 
  • Help your teen resist sexual pressure. See the AAP's article, which outlines strategies for parents and teens on this important topic. 

What teens can do

These strategies can help teens avoid an abusive relationship: 

  • Respect your partners and yourselves
  • Have a life, friends and family outside of your relationship
  • Resolve disagreements with your significant other with love and respect
  • Recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships
  • Stand up when you see signs of abuse
  • Know your supports in your family and community

If you or your friends are involved in an abusive or violent relationship, ask an adult for help. Your parents, health care provider and teachers are good places to start. Sometimes seeking help can be very difficult when you or a friend is in a violent or abusive relationship. There's a hotline available for teens in violent relationships: 866-331-9474. You can also text "loveis" to 22522 or visit www.loveisrespect.org

Dr. Janna Gewirtz O'Brien is a pediatrician with Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. She has a strong interest in adolescent health and community advocacy and serves on the board of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She also volunteers and serves on the board of Rochester Students' Health Services, the non-profit organization that runs the Rochester Alternative Learning Center Health Clinic.