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Bad Romance: Raising Awareness of Abuse in Teen Relationships

teen girl walking away from angry teen boy

While most romantic relationships forged in teenage years don’t last forever, they can typically be looked back on for fond memories, lessons learned … or at least a good-natured eye roll. But the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that for more than 10 percent of high school students, young love includes physical, verbal or emotional abuse, potentially endangering teens and inflicting trauma, shame or psychological distress that can last even into adulthood.

“Research consistently shows that traumatic experiences during adolescence can have direct and profound associations with both psychological and physical health issues,” says Benjamin Maxwell, M.D., medical director of inpatient psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and assistant professor for the Department of Psychiatry within University of California School of Medicine. “Implications may include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation, as well as an increased likelihood to develop an eating disorder, engage in risky behaviors or have abusive relationships in the future.”

One of the most powerful ways we can help prevent or halt abuse is to shed light on the issue; to bring it into conversations and arm teens with knowledge to protect their friends or themselves. This Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we aim to be a part of doing just that.

What Constitutes Relationship Abuse?

Abuse can occur in all current and former romantic relationships, come from one or both partners — heterosexual or homosexual, boys or girls, cisgender or transgender — and reach far beyond the scope of physical violence. Abuse can be consistent or sporadic, and include one, a mix or all of the following forms of dating violence:

  • Verbal: Calling names, insulting, embarrassing in public and/or yelling. In some instances, verbal abuse can occur on digital platforms, such as through text message, social media or email. Teasing insults may be an early indicator.
  • Emotional/psychological: Threatening, including to harm the abused partner or their loved ones or to self-harm; stalking; intimidating; belittling; sharing a partner’s secrets; keeping a partner isolated from family and friends; intentionally damaging personal belongings or property. As in verbal abuse, emotional or psychological abuse can be conducted through technology — this can range from using social network statuses to keep tabs on whereabouts to sharing private photos to stealing or demanding account passwords. Becoming upset when a partner spends time with others, attempting to control a partner’s activities, or threatening to leave a partner in an unsafe or unfamiliar location when arguing may be early indicators.
  • Physical: Slapping, punching, pushing, grabbing, pulling hair, biting, throwing objects, using weapons. Becoming inappropriately upset for a situation or threatening to injure a partner may be early indicators.
  • Sexual (date rape or sexual coercion): Forcing, whether physically, verbally or both, an unwilling partner to participate in sexual activity. Engaging in what the APA calls “emotional blackmail,” such as saying, “if you don’t have sex with me, you must not actually love me,” may be an early indicator.
  • “Male privilege”: Building relationship dynamics around the concept that men should hold more power and are owed deference from women. For example, a boyfriend may exercise his perceived right to make all decisions, demand things from his girlfriend or treat his girlfriend like property. Expecting his girlfriend to be at his beck and call or seriously referring to his girlfriend by names such as “my woman” around friends or family may be early indicators.

What Might Increase a Teen’s Risk for Being Abused? Or Being Abusive?

Getting involved in an abusive relationship can unfortunately happen to anyone, but there are factors that potentially make teens more susceptible. These include the following:

  • Problematic gender role stereotypes: Some couples, or one partner within the couple, may believe that men should be tough, hold power over women, act as though they don’t care about feelings and/or say women are only useful for sex; and that women should follow men’s wishes, take responsibility for their partner’s happiness and/or go to great, even unreasonable lengths, to keep them satisfied in their relationships. This can perpetuate a harmful, unrealistic dynamic with little balance of power and justifications for unhealthy behaviors.
  • Abuse at home: Witnessing abuse between parents or caregivers may give children the perception that it’s normal for all romantic relationships to function similarly. This can lead to teens perpetuating or accepting abusive behavior when involved in their own relationships, or even lack of awareness abuse is happening in the first place.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant teens are in an emotionally vulnerable, complex situation, and may be more inclined to put up with abusive behavior to maintain a relationship with the father of their child. They may also already be facing disapproval or isolation from family or peers, making it more intimidating or difficult to report abuse and get help.
  • Older partner: Being involved with someone older increases the potential for teens to fall victim to controlling and dominating behaviors. It’s also critical couples understand that even consensual sex qualifies as statutory rape if one partner is under 18 and the other partner isn’t.
  • Substance use: Using drugs or alcohol can lower inhibitions, alter typical behavior and affect situational awareness. As such, teens under the influence may be more likely to misinterpret interactions with their partner, such as believing affection is an invitation for sex, or to act in ways they may later regret. Teens engaging in abusive behavior while drunk or high may also tell their partners, “I didn’t want to call you names — the drugs I took made me do it,” or “I’m sorry I hit you — I was just too drunk.”

What Can I Do? What Can Teens Do?

Research shows that abusive relationships can begin at an early age. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that about 30 percent of middle school students say they’ve had significant others ask for passwords, demand to read correspondences or constantly contact them.

Accordingly, it’s important for parents to integrate discussions about healthy relationships — the importance of consent, setting boundaries, understanding that abuse is more than physical violence, how to respectfully address and resolve conflicts — into developmentally appropriate conversations with kids before and during their first dating experiences.  “This is a great opportunity to emphasize your role as a confidant and ally, go over ‘if this, then that’ scenarios, and ensure teens know they can come to you with questions or concerns,” explains Dr. Maxwell.

In the event your teen reveals they’re in an abusive relationship, the following tactics can help you understand the facts, protect your child and support them in safely ending their relationship:

  • Listen and believe: It can be extremely difficult, even embarrassing or scary, to come forward about being abused. Many teens worry about parents being angry, disappointed or placing blame on them, or about not being understood or believed. Seeking help can be all the more emotionally complex for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI) teens, who may not yet be “out” or fear parents will assume all LGBTQI relationships are unhealthy; or for teens whose cultures or familial beliefs don’t encourage youth dating. Listening to your child’s story, expressing comprehension and compassion, and ensuring they feel in charge of the conversation are essential first steps in supporting them.
  • Enforce worth: Make sure your teen knows their partner’s behavior is not normal or okay, that they deserve to be in a safe and loving relationship, and that they are not at fault for being abused. “Unfortunately, many youth place blame on themselves when they’re involved in traumatic events,” Dr. Maxwell comments. “Helping them to understand and unpack the situation from a different perspective is central to emotional healing and building a healthy self-concept.”
  • Choose your words: Rather than speaking against your child’s significant other as a person, speak against their behavior. For instance, saying, “I think it’s unhealthy that Jane asks to see your texts and Facebook messages” is a more productive way to frame concerns than saying, “Jane is too controlling.” Despite the fact they’re sharing concerns of their own, it may be tough for some teens to hear negative things said about their partner, which could dissuade them from continuing conversations with you. Plus, this communication strategy models the concept of addressing conflict in a respectful way that avoids name-calling.
  • Don’t force a breakup: Ending most relationships, even healthy ones, isn’t easy, and ending abusive relationships can be significantly more complicated and daunting. Therefore, it’s important your teen feels fully prepared to do so. Breaking up before they’re truly ready may lead to reconciliation because they haven’t had the opportunity to deal with their emotions. While it may feel counterintuitive, saying your teen must break up with their significant other can complicate their emotional processing and actually delay them leaving their unhealthy dynamic. That said, if communicating with or seeing their significant other is putting your child, your family or others in danger, restrictions and further actions are certainly appropriate.
  • Make a plan: Whether they’re ready to end their relationship now or need a bit of time, act as your teen’s partner in determining what actions to take to get there. Remain supportive, have ongoing discussions and, as needed, bring in additional resources, such as a mental health professional or a peer advocate trained in addressing dating abuse.

Teens should also be armed with knowledge of what to do should they find themselves in an abusive relationship, or have a friend who is being abused. Steps include the following:

  • Drawing the line: If it’s safe to do so, teens can state the ways in which their partner has hurt them, and voice that they don’t find this treatment acceptable. It’s very likely the abuser will apologize for his or her actions, which victims should be wary of — it’s also likely they’ll return to their behavior.
  • Seeking support and taking action: Opening up to friends is a great first step for abused teens, but they should also call upon the help of a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher, or school or mental health counselor. From here, they can discuss fears and mentally prepare to end the relationship. It’s also very important that teens know they can always call the police if they feel their safety, or the safety of their friends or loved ones, is in jeopardy, as well as seek legal protection. While specifics vary between states and situations, teens are able to seek restraining orders against abusive partners or ex-partners, which can restrict their ability to be around or even contact the filing party. Saving communications, such as texts or voicemails; documenting incidents of abuse; and, if applicable, taking photos are all powerful tools in securing protective measures.
  • Maintaining safety: This can include blocking calls and texts; bringing someone, like a parent or friend, if they need to have an in-person conversation with their partner; or temporarily staying somewhere other than home if they don’t feel safe there. In today’s digital age, teens should also be cognizant of “checking in” at locations on social media or geotagging photos — an abusive partner could use this information to stalk or threaten. Even if teens feel comfortable doing this for themselves, they should always ask friends if they feel the same, especially if they know they are or were involved in an abusive relationship. And, as much as they may want to stand up for friends who are being abused, teens should avoid contacting their friend’s significant other or posting anything negative about them on social networks. This could cause further issues.
  • Removing self-blame and accepting the situation: It can be all too easy for abused teens to blame themselves for their partner’s actions, or convince themselves their partner will change —because they love them, because they didn’t mean what they did, because abuse only happened once or a few times. Abuse is never, ever the fault of the victim, and realistically, most abusers will not change. Engaging in self-care activities or talking through feelings with a mental health counselor, parent or friend can help sort through these feelings, reframe perspectives and restore self-worth.

Abuse in teen relationships isn’t a fun topic to address. But with heightened awareness and more conversations, we can empower youth to understand and demand the elements of healthy love.


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  2. “Get Help For Someone Else: Help My Child.” Love is Respect,
  3. “Get Help For Someone Else: Help a Friend.” Love is Respect,
  4. “Is This Abuse?: Types of Abuse.” Love is Respect,
  5. “Path to Safety.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline,
  6. “Setting Boundaries.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline,
  7. “Signs of Teen Dating Violence.” American Academy of Pediatrics,
  8. “Teen Dating Violence.” National Institute of Justice,
  9. “Victims of Teen Dating Violence Can Seek a Restraining Order.” Teen Dating Violence,