Teen Dating Violence the Never Talked About Issue

So what is teen dating violence?  According to the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, teen dating violence (TDV) is a pattern of behavior that someone uses to gain control over his or her dating partner.  It is also important to note that “dating” is a term that adults tend to use to identify romantic relationships between young people; accordingly, that’s the term that we use in describing these dynamics on this page. However, teens use a range of terms to characterize their romantic relationships; common terms include—hanging out, hooking up, going out, crushing, flirting, seeing, etc. Try not to let the differences in language keep you from being on the same page in talking with your kids about these relationships. In this page we use “dating” as an inclusive term covering the range of adolescent romantic relationships ranging from casual, episodic encounters to longer-term, committed relationships.

There are many different types of TDV.  TDV can include physical abuse—things like hitting, pushing, slapping, or strangling a dating partner.  It may also include emotional or verbal abuse, behaviors like name-calling or insults.  Emotional abuse may include isolating a dating partner by trying to control the time they spend with friends and family, limiting the activities someone is involved in, or humiliating a dating partner through social sabotage.  Sometimes abusers use technology—texting, calls, instant messages, or social networking sites—to check up on a partner and try to control their behavior. TDV may include sexual violence including any kind of unwanted or forced sexual contact.  Sexual control may also include reproductive coercion where an abuser sabotages his partner’s birth control, forces pregnancy and/or determines the outcome of the victim’s pregnancies.

The Teen Power and Control Wheel visually depicts the range of strategies that an abuser may use to gain and maintain power over a dating partner.

Teen Power and Control wheel

TDV is a lot more common than most people realize.  Here are some facts from the Center for Disease control about the prevalence of teen dating violence in the United States:

  • 1 in 4 adolescents report experiencing verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from a dating partner each year.
  • About 1 in 11 teens report being a victim of physical dating violence each year.
  • About 1 in 5 high school girls have been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner each year.
  • Approximately 8% of boys and 9% of girls have been to an emergency room for an injury received from a dating partner.
  • Rates of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use are more than twice as high in girls who report physical dating violence or sexual abuse than for girls who report not having experienced violence.

Prevalence rates of TDV in Indiana closely mirror those found in the national CDC sample. According to the 2009 Indiana Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (a representative sample drawn from 9th through 12th grade students in Indiana):

  • 12% of youth reported being intentionally, physically injured by a dating partner within the past year. There wasn’t a significant difference in rates of teen dating violence reported by girls and boys with 13.7 % of girls and 10.5 % of boys reporting such experience within the past year.
  • 11% of youth reported having been forced to have sexual intercourse against their will at some point in their lifetime. Girls were the victims of sexual violence at significantly higher rates than were boys with 17 % of girls and 5% of boys reporting an experience of sexual violence. For more information about the 2009 Youth Risk Behavioral Survey click here. The tables providing information about dating and sexual violence can be found on pages 13 and 14 of the report.

Since many teens are confronted by dating violence dynamics, you can contribute to the health of your child’s relationship by recognizing the early warning signs of abuse.  Kids who are being abused by a partner may:

  • Give up hobbies or other activities that they once enjoyed
  • Worry all the time about making their boyfriend or girlfriend jealous
  • Apologize for their partner’s behavior or make excuses for them
  • Withdraw from friends and family
  • Spend a lot of time with the person they’re dating, but not with other friends
  • Get constant texts or calls from their partner
  • Have unexplained injuries, or give explanations that don’t make any sense
  • Change noticeable things about their behavior, clothing, academic goals, or friendships.

If you see these red flags in your teen’s relationship, it’s important that you speak up and let them know you’re concerned.  We have more information on talking to your kid about teen dating violence here.

While it’s scary to think that your child may be experiencing violence, it can be devastating to wonder if your child is hurting someone else.  But you can be in an important position to influence your child’s behavior if he or she is violent, so it’s important to be aware of these warning signs as well.  Kids who are abusive may:

  • Insult their boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Try to control how their boyfriend or girlfriend dresses and acts
  • Check in on the person they are dating constantly
  • Lose their temper and seem unable to control their anger
  • Threaten to do something drastic if the person they are dating tries to break up with them

If any of these behaviors sound familiar to you, it’s important that you speak to your son or daughter about healthy relationships.  You can find more information about talking to your teen here.

Technology and Abuse

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, youth ages 8-18 spend over 7 hours every day engaged with tech devices including cell phones, computers, television and other digital devices. In addition to all of the benefits conferred by these technologies, cyberspace is a growing forum for forms of control, abuse, harassment and stalking. Digital abuse includes the use of cell phones, messaging, social networks or the internet to harm, control, harass, manipulate, intimidate, monitor or embarrass another person.

As you talk with your kids about their tech habits, it’s really important to understand that participation in the digital landscape is a key part of young peoples’ social experience. In talking with your kids about sensible guidelines, let them know that you are interested in helping them use technology safely, not in restricting their use of these devices. If your child fears that you will limit their access to their phone or computer, they might not confide in you if they are experiencing digital abuse.

Control and monitoring: Control is a key feature of abusive behavior and new technologies give abusive individuals new tools for monitoring their victim’s behavior to maintain control. Examples of this include constant texting, social network surveillance and even video monitoring. Cell phones, messaging and social networks are intended for communication and social interaction. In evaluating your child’s experience with these technologies ask them to consider the difference between communication and monitoring. Are frequent texts just chatting and checking in, or are they an attempt to control? Constant texts asking where you are, who you are with, what you are doing, what you are wearing, etc, are designed to limit social interactions and friendships outside of the dating relationship.

Boundaries and privacy: Though electronic forms of communication may seem more casual than talking in person, these forms of communication can be permanently recorded and have the same “real world” consequences. Let your kids know that their digital boundaries should closely mirror their in-person boundaries. Basically, if you wouldn’t say that or show that in person, don’t do it online! Once a message or image is sent, the sender no longer has control over that content. Private communication is very easily made public through digital networks. An abuser could use embarrassing information as a tool for gaining control in a relationship (if you don’t stay with me, do what I say, etc, I will post your information), or as a tool for retaliation if the victim ends the relationship.

Be engaged: Though kids may be more adept with and use different technologies than adults, it’s a great idea to try to keep up. Keep an eye on your child’s digital habits, especially if changes in those habits seem to coincide with negative changes in other life habits and hobbies. Good strategies for engagement include asking your kids to add you to their social networking sites, talking with them about technology and safety, and simply asking them how things are going.

For more information about forms of digital abuse and strategies for preventing these behaviors click here.


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