Risk Factors for Teen Dating Violence

Having a boyfriend or girlfriend is common during the teen years, but not all of these relationships are healthy. In fact, a large percentage of teens report experiencing some form of abuse. Topping the list is psychological or verbal abuse, with 60 percent of teens experiencing it during their dating relationships. Meanwhile, 18 percent of teens report physical abuse and nearly 20 percent experienced sexual abuse. Other types of dating abuse teens may experience include digital dating violence, cyberbullying, and financial abuse.

Aside from the fact that no teen should ever have to experience violence or abuse, doing so can have a wide range of short-term and long-term consequences. Even perpetrators experience negative consequences from teen dating abuse. Yet, it continues to occur at alarming rates.

Risk factors for teen dating violence
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell.

What Is Teen Dating Violence?

Teen dating violence is defined as the physical, emotional, psychological, stalking, and even sexual aggression that can occur during a teen relationship. It can occur in person, online, or electronically and involves two people who are dating or have dated in the past.

Overall, teen dating violence is a widespread problem that teens often have trouble identifying as unhealthy. In fact, some teens think that teasing, jealousy, and name-calling are a normal part of a relationship. They are often flattered by jealousy and constant texting, but these intense actions often are the first steps of controlling another person.

Teen Dating Violence vs. Domestic Abuse

It is important to realize that although teen dating violence is similar to the abuse that adults experience, there are some differences, too.

Teen dating violence is often harder to identify than domestic abuse.

For instance, the teen years are filled with all types of changes emotionally and physically. As a result, it can be difficult for parents and educators to determine which teens are going through something serious and which teens are just "being teens." Consequently, it is vital that adults, as well as teens, know the warning signs for dating violence.

Common Signs

In addition to obvious changes like falling grades and unexplained injuries, teens who are experiencing dating violence also may be isolated from their core friend group and their family members. In fact, controlling another person's time, demanding they spend all their time together, and criticizing the person's family and friends are often the first signs that something is amiss in the relationship.

Other signs that teens may be experiencing dating violence include excessively checking their phone for messages, receiving excessive amounts of messages from their boyfriend or girlfriend in a single day, and feeling panicked if they do not respond right away to messages. Teens who are being abused also may mention how jealous their significant other is as well as make excuses for their bad behavior.

Dynamics Across Relationships

To further complicate matters, abuse does not always occur in the same way from one relationship to another. In fact, one study found that 70 percent of teen dating violence perpetrators who were physically abusive did not continue the behavior in the next relationship. What's more, another study found that young adults who experienced dating violence in a past relationship do not experience abuse in all their relationships.

Additionally, teens bring unique experiences, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors to their relationships. Each of these factors then contributes to the quality of the romantic relationship. These dynamics between the two dating partners can encourage or discourage dating violence.

Consequently, it is clear that dating violence can change from relationship to relationship. As a result, it is important to focus on the context and dynamics of the relationship in order to better understand teen dating violence.

Risks for Teen Dating Violence

Teens are often heavily influenced by what they experience in their relationships. As a result, healthy relationships can have a positive effect on a teen's emotional development and the risk they have for experiencing dating violence.

Along the same lines, unhealthy, abusive, or violent relationships can have a negative impact on a developing teen.

What's more, teens' views about relationships are impacted by their peers, the media and even their families. Consequently, the risk for teens to experience teen dating violence or unhealthy relationship behaviors is impacted by a number of risk factors.

Here are some factors that contribute to teen dating violence.

Individual Risk Factors for Victimization

  • Believing that dating violence is acceptable
  • Behaving in aggressive ways toward peers and others
  • Struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues
  • Experiencing stressful life events like sexual abuse or sexual trauma
  • Dating at a young age
  • Using drugs or illegal substances
  • Engaging in early sexual activity prior to age 16
  • Starting menstruation at an early age
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Lacking social problem-solving skills
  • Using emotional disengagement and blaming as coping mechanisms
  • Witnessing community or neighborhood violence
  • Having low help-seeking characteristics

Relationship Risk Factors for Victimization

  • Having a friend or sibling involved in an unhealthy relationship
  • Experiencing lots of conflicts with the dating partner
  • Witnessing or experiencing abuse or violence in the home
  • Being parented in a harsh or inconsistent way
  • Lacking supervision and/or warmth from parents
  • Being socially isolated or lacking social support

Risk Factors for Dating Violence Perpetration

  • Believing that it is acceptable to make threats or use violence to get their way
  • Using violence or abuse as a way to express anger or frustration
  • Having problems managing anger or frustration
  • Associating with violent peers or others in violent or abusive relationships
  • Having low-self esteem
  • Struggling with a fear of abandonment
  • Lacking proper parental supervision and support
  • Struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues
  • Witnessing violence at home or in the community
  • Experiencing jealousy, possessiveness and other negative emotions in a relationship

Teen Dating Violence and Boys

In a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Justice, it was found that teens who bullied other students while in middle school were more likely to engage in more serious forms of interpersonal aggression in dating relationships as they grew older. However, the connection was not direct.

In other words, bullying behavior in middle school did not predict teen dating violence. Instead, it predicted bullying behavior in high school, which in turn was linked to teen dating violence.

They also found that there are some differences in the types of violence and abuse that teens experience. For instance, they found that female teens reported more cyber abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual violence. Meanwhile, boys reported more physical dating violence.

This study, combined with a new study conducted by the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, found that boys are more likely to report being hit, slapped, or pushed than girls.

In fact, researchers found that 5.8 percent of boys and 4.2 percent of girls said they had been physically abused by a dating partner in the past year. Those conducting the study theorize that the difference in percentages could be that people still believe it is socially acceptable for girls to hit, slap, or push their boyfriends.

These findings are significant because a lot of dating violence prevention programs assume that girls are always the victim, but these findings tell us that is not always the case.

Early Puberty and Teen Dating Violence

Research suggests that girls who go through puberty earlier than their peers may be more vulnerable to teen dating violence. In fact, 32 percent of girls who went through puberty early said that their boyfriend verbally or physically abused them. However, it is important to note that not all girls who mature early experience abuse, and the girls who mature on time or later are not immune from it.

But, these findings do suggest that young girls who are physically mature are more vulnerable. This is especially true if the majority of their friends are boys. What's more, girls who mature early also are at risk for low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and risk-taking—all things that are also risk factors for teen dating violence.

Finally, girls that go through puberty early often look older but may not necessarily act older. As a result, people may have certain expectations of them that are not in line with their age. They also may be more attractive to older boys, which can open the door not only for risky situations but also for teen dating violence.

The Risks of Teen Sexual Dating Violence

In the United States, teen sexual violence is a huge problem that affects approximately one out of every ten teens ages 17 and younger. Yet, despite its prevalence, researchers have historically limited their study of sexual violence to young adults between the ages of 18 and 22.

However, a new study conducted by the scientists at the University of Michigan focused on a socioeconomically diverse group of middle school and high school students in southeastern Michigan to determine how developing teens were impacted by sexual dating violence.

In the study, they discovered that more than half of females and more than 1 in 3 miles reported being victimized sexually. Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 4 males and more than 1 in 10 females reported committing acts of sexual dating violence.

For the study, the researchers defined sexual violence as both physical and nonphysical acts among victims and perpetrators.

Examples included a variety of sexual bullying techniques such as being stared at or teased in a sexual way as well as actions that lead to unwanted sexual intercourse. And although they found that the majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by opposite-sex peers, 13.6 of those responding experienced same-sex peer sexual violence.

The study also revealed that both males and females reported connections between substance abuse and symptoms of depression with the risk of sexual violence. However, there was still is little evidence connecting substance abuse to sexual violence in teens like it is with young adults.

Teen Dating Violence and Substance Abuse

Research has shown that there is a link between teen dating violence and substance abuse. They are related in much the same way that anxiety and drug use are connected. Often one is a symptom of the other.

In other words, teens experiencing dating violence might begin to use alcohol to cope. Or, teens that already abuse alcohol or drugs may be more at risk of experiencing an abusive or violent relationship. Yet, even though they are often intertwined, one does not always precede the other. But, when they happen together, the results are disastrous.

For instance, teen victims of dating violence are more likely than their non-abused peers to smoke, use drugs, engage in unhealthy diet behaviors, attempt or consider suicide and engage in risky sexual behaviors. Meanwhile, young adults who have experienced abuse or dating violence are more likely to have mental health and substance abuse disorders within six months of the abuse.

It is also important to remember that even though mental health issues (like depression) and substance abuse issues are linked to violence, they are not in any way meant to blame the victim for being targeted. Making the connections between these issues is simply a way to alert parents, teachers and health care providers that if these things exist, there is an increased risk for victimization.

A Word From Verywell

Parents, educators, and health care providers can protect teens from dating violence by helping them define what healthy dating relationships look like. Ideally, this education would take place prior to the first date. Once teens do begin to date, knowing the context of the relationship and its dynamics along with the risk factors and the warning signs can help you know how to intervene.

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