The Cycle of Teen Domestic Violence

Teenage boy scolding teenage girl
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Teen domestic violence is violence or threats of violence towards a romantic partner or a household member who is a teenager. The threat can involve physical abuse, sexual assault, or the threat of either one. Teens can experience domestic violence from a family member or someone they are dating.

Domestic abuse occurs in high-income families, low-income families, gay relationships, and straight relationships. Men and women can be abused, and both men and women can be abusers. Domestic violence can happen to anyone.

In an abusive relationship, there tends to be a cycle of violence. Because the cycle is predictable, it is important for your teen to be aware of what to look for and to be able to recognize the cycle. If your teen knows this pattern in his relationship, it signifies that the relationship is an abusive one.

Family vs. Domestic Abuse

The cycle of abuse might look slightly different if we are talking about abuse between a family member and a teen, or romantic interest and a teen. In a family setting, the cycle of abuse will be similar, but may have been going on for so long that there is no “beginning.” And the cycle might occur quickly (minutes or hours), so it is hard to recognize stages.

In a romantic or dating situation, there is a time when the relationship is just beginning. At this start of the relationship, the romantic partner may appear to be perfect. There are compliments, gifts, and affection. He may seem like a wonderful person to be with. Then, trouble begins.

The Phases of Domestic Violence

Note: This cycle can occur with the female as the abuser and male as abused or between two women or two men. The pronouns used are strictly for ease of reading, not because the cycle cannot occur between other genders.

Tension-Building Phase

  • The abuser will start to get angry and pick fights. It might seem like the fights are over small issues. This might make the teen feel as if she has to be careful of what she says or does, and that she has to please the abuser to avoid a fight.
  • The abuser may begin to use drugs or alcohol during this time or resume using the drug of choice.
  • The abuser will become jealous of other relationships the teen has and start to pressure her not to spend time with other people. At first, this might feel like the abuser is being “protective” instead of controlling.
  • The abuser may begin to criticize, insult, or even physically abuse the teen. The abuser may try to make the teen feel as if she is crazy, and may lie about his behavior or past events.


  • Abuse happens. It might be physical violence, during which the teen is hit, smacked, kicked, pushed, or otherwise physically attacked. It can be sexual abuse, where the teen is touched sexually or forced to do a sex act with the abuser. It can also be verbal or emotional abuse where the teen is threatened, yelled at, intimidated, or verbally assaulted in any way that feels abusive. Objects may be broken, or animals abused to scare the teen.
  • The teen feels frightened, confused, or “in shock.” She may try to protect herself or may try to get away from the abuser. She may try to break off the relationship and avoid the abuser.

Honeymoon Phase

  • The abuser apologizes for his actions and might promise they won't happen again. He may also apologize but blame the teen for his actions. He may even blame the abuse on stress, drugs, alcohol, or other factors. The teen may feel responsible for the explosion and blame herself. She might also see his apology as a willingness to change.
  • The abuser might buy gifts for the teen, or take her out and spend money on her.
  • He will be affectionate and loving. The teen will focus on these good times to stay when the crisis or explosion happens again.
  • He might even go to counseling to try to “work it out” with the teen. She may see this as her ability to “change” the abuser for the better.

The abused teen may feel hurt, threatened, and manipulated by the events and break off the relationship. She may feel like this honeymoon is a sign that he can change. Unless she recognizes that the relationship is abusive and knows she deserves better, she can become stuck in this cycle of violence and abuse.

This cycle may not look the same for each situation, and may not look the same every time. In some relationships, this cycle can occur over months or even years, making it difficult to recognize. In general, the longer a relationship lasts, the more often this cycle occurs, and the shorter the cycle becomes. This cycle can take place in minutes, particularly if the abuse has been going on for some time.

What Parents Need to Know

If you, as a parent, recognize this cycle in your own home or your teen's romantic relationship, you need to intervene as soon as possible. Discuss the issue with your teen and express your concerns. Your teen may feel defensive and refuse to see what is happening. Seek out the advice of a counselor or your local domestic violence organization. The National Domestic Violence Hotline will be able to refer you to your local organization. If the violence is occurring at home or with another family member, you can contact the same hotline or domestic violence organization for help. Domestic violence that occurs in the home between parent and child or siblings or other family members is just as dangerous as teen dating violence and needs to be addressed.

2 Sources
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  1. Advocates to End Domestic Violence. The Cycle of Violence.

  2. Hildebrand NA, Celeri EHRV, Morcillo AM, Zanolli ML. Resilience and mental health problems in children and adolescents who have been victims of violenceRev Saude Publica. 2019;53:17. doi:10.11606/S1518-8787.2019053000391

By Barbara Poncelet
 Barbara Poncelet, CRNP, is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in teen health.