Teen Dating Violence and Healthy Relationships

Teen Dating Violence and Healthy Relationships

 

© 2024 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD

Teen dating violence has become a real concern with its own frequently used initials (TDV). February is now Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM). Teens, young adults, parents, professionals, and anyone concerned about future adult relationships can all benefit from learning about this problem and how to help teenagers start building healthy romantic relationships. This article will address the nature of teen dating violence and factors that can reduce it. This will also address how the teen years offer some potential to re-direct harmful behaviors before they solidify in adulthood and develop high conflict personalities or personality disorders. Lastly, a method will be explained for teaching teenagers skills for managing healthy relationships.

 

How Widespread Is It?

Research indicates that TDV is very common. “Approximately 1 in 3 teens in the U.S. is a victim of teen dating violence, which involves physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. Stalking is also a common type of teen dating violence and is often committed by intimate partners or acquaintances.” The impact of TDV can be very serious. “Research shows that victims of TDV are 2 to 3 times more likely to commit suicide, report increased alcohol and substance use, and suffer from increased rates of anxiety and depression.” (Obenschain and Jackson, 2021)      

During Covid, adult domestic violence increased worldwide as partners were stuck at home with their abusers. But since few teens lived with their dating partners, you would think that TDV would have gone down. To the contrary, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 101% increase in reports of “digital abuse” from 2019 to 2020. Digital abuse or online abuse includes:

  • Logging into or using a young person’s social networking account without permission
  • Sending unwanted sexual messages or pressuring a young person to send sexual or naked photos
  • Monitoring a young person’s activity or other conversations online; preventing a person from talking to friends or having conversations with anyone besides them
  • Spreading rumors about a young person via text message, email, or social media or posting embarrassing photos of a young person online
  • Creating a false profile page using the victims’ name to control them
  • Threatening or harassing a young person over the phone or social media
  • Using GPS locators from social media platforms to stalk a young person 

(Obenschain and Jackson, 2021)

The impact of digital abuse is that over 90% of teen victims will also be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by their dating partner. This means that digital abuse is just one of the tactics that sets up the teen for further abuse in person. (Urban Institute, 2013)

 

What Factors Contribute to TDV?

Research published in 2022 indicated that there are several factors that influence the likelihood of teen dating violence. Of these, peer networks have the strongest impact, since teens spend most of their day at school and around their peers. “Research has shown that adolescents whose peer networks consist of individuals who are in abusive relationships or condone violent behaviors within relationships are more likely to adopt these attitudes or behaviors themselves.” This was found to be a bigger influence than “risky sexual history, risky family background, and poor ability to self-regulate,” which are also important factors. Likewise, peer bullying was also found to be a factor that could increase the likelihood of TDV. (Hunt, et al, 2022, 917-919)

What this research suggests, but doesn’t specifically say, is that if a teen’s parents have an abusive relationship with domestic violence but the teen’s peers are against violence in relationships, then the teen is less likely to be in a violent relationship. On the other hand, if the parents have a non-violent relationship and the teen’s peers endorse violence as allowed in dating relationships, then the teen is more likely to accept or engage in relationship violence. Peers are the most important factor. 

One of the findings of this study was that attitudes about gender roles and equality can set teens up for violent relationships. Students were asked if they agreed with statements like this: “In a dating relationship the boy should be smarter than the girl.” And: “My friends generally think that it is ok for a boy to hit his/her girlfriend if she did something to make him/her mad.” Response choices were strongly disagree, disagree somewhat, agree somewhat, strongly agree. If they agreed with these statements of inequality in dating relationships, they increased the risk of dating violence. (Hunt, et al, 2022, 922)

In addition, this research found that “sexual initiation before the age of sixteen is correlated with higher levels of TDV victimization.” In addition to the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, early initiation of sex increases emotional difficulties which increase likelihood of violence including “altered self-esteem, depression, and greater difficulty forming healthy relationships.” (Hunt, et al, 2022, 918)

What this means is that efforts to reduce and prevent TDV shouldn’t just target peer influences in middle schools (as some programs do) but should also reach high schools as peers remain so important in developing adult attitudes and behavior throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. (Hunt, et al, 2022) This also reinforces the idea that parents of teens should be encouraged to monitor their peer groups and attitudes about violence in relationships. 

Educating teenagers, parents, and professionals who work with them can be a big step in reducing these risks. While this is an age when parents don’t want to interfere too much with their adolescents’ personal relationships, it can be important to set limits and have talks about sexuality (even if they pretend not to hear a thing–but they do). While they already know a lot more about the mechanics of sex than prior generations (thanks to the internet), they tend to be very ignorant about values and risks around relationships. What they learn from their peers may often be unhealthy. Keeping lines of communication open is essential, especially for times they may feel bullied or unsupported by their peers. When in doubt, talk about it. 

 

High Conflict Peers

People’s personalities start developing in early childhood, even in just the first five or six years, and by adolescence some peers may be showing a pattern of high conflict behavior that suggests a developing high conflict personality or personality disorder. These include: a preoccupation with blaming others, a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behaviors (like dating violence). Such high conflict personalities are often associated with personality disorders, which means that the person is stuck in a pattern of dysfunctional interpersonal behavior that is unlikely to change. (Eddy and Hunter, 2017, 20)  

Approximately 10% of adults have a personality disorder according to the diagnostic manual of mental health professionals. (APA, 2022, 734). Since these are developing by adolescence, there is a percentage chance that a teenager could get into a romantic relationship with someone developing such a disorder. Since some (but not all) personality disorders are predictors for increased risk of domestic violence (Collison and Lynam, 2021), it is worthwhile learning some behavioral warning signs.  

With this in mind, I co-authored a book with Megan Hunter titled: Dating Radar in 2017. We explained that four personality types have patterns of high conflict behavior (blaming, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors) in adult couple relationships. From an online survey we did, we found that these characteristics were common at the beginning of dating relationships of all ages that became high conflict: extreme charm, a rush to engage in sexual activity, pretending to have compatible interests, promises of being a protective person, and aggressiveness. We also found that certain false beliefs helped blind dating partners to some of the warning signs, including the idea that “I can fix or change my partner’s abusive behavior” or that “time and love” will change the other partner. (Eddy and Hunter, 2017)  

On the other hand, teen dating violence is usually more easily changed with professional help than adult relationship violence. In adolescence, the brain is still developing and behaviors can more easily be learned and unlearned, especially if the person commits to a program of behavior change (such as in counseling or ongoing group programs). Teenagers showing signs of developing personality disorders can be re-directed with professional help in many cases. 

 

Healthy Relationships

In healthy relationships people can talk about almost anything, especially their relationship with each other. Treating each other as equal partners seems to be one of the key values in avoiding teen dating violence, and that takes communicating. Without traditional roles (men do this, women do that), much of what today’s relationships look like is determined by negotiations between partners. This means that teens need to learn good negotiation, communication, and self-awareness skills. 

When it comes to sex, this includes: “No means No, AND only Yes means Yes.” Silence does not mean consent. Being drunk does not mean consent. These have become major messages on college campuses today, yet there are still many well-publicized incidents where students did not follow this advice.

There are many (but not enough) youth programs that can help teens develop good social skills, including communication, negotiation, and self-awareness skills. With High Conflict Institute, we have developed a skills training method for adolescents titled New Ways for Life. It teaches 4 Big Skills for life with a lot of practice exercises: managed emotions, flexible thinking, moderate behavior, and checking yourself. These skills can last a lifetime and help a teenager deal with many of the challenges of today’s world while they are changing so dramatically inside. These skills can be taught by a teacher, coach, parent, or other adult using the Instructor’s Guide. Much of it can be self-directed by the teen using the Youth Journal. (Eddy and Rayner, 2020)

 

Conclusion

Today’s teenagers face a rapidly changing world with rapidly changing standards for behavior. Teen dating violence (TDV) can be easily confused with love and connection, yet violence is not love and intense connections are possible in many other positive ways. There are several ways to reduce or eliminate teen dating violence. Peer influences are the most powerful, which means that parents and schools need to encourage and supervise healthy teen values and behaviors. There are warning signs that can and should be learned in adolescence so that teens can protect themselves from abusive behavior before it even starts. Learning healthy relationship skills can prepare teens and young adults for a lifetime of satisfying and safe adult relationships, a foundation for society’s future well-being.   

 

REFERENCES

American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.  

Collison, Katherine L. and Donald R. Lynam, “Personality disorders as predictors of intimate partner violence: A meta-analysis.” Clinical Psychology Review, 88 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2021.102047           

Eddy, Bill and Megan Hunter, Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says YES to “THE ONE” Who Will Make Your Life Hell. (Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books, 2017)

Eddy, Bill and Susie Rayner, New Ways for Life: Instructor’s Guide and Youth Journal. (Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books, 2020) 

Hunt, Kristen E., Luz E. Robinson, Alberto Valido, Dorothy L. Espelage, and Jun Sung Hong, “Teen Dating Violence Victimization: Associations Among Peer Justification, Attitudes Toward Gender Inequality, Sexual Activity, and Peer Victimization,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2022, Vol. 37 (9-10), 914-936.

Obenschain, Katherine C., and Gabriel Jackson, “Teen Dating Violence and Digital Abuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – Center for Injury Research & Prevention, February 23, 2021. https://injury.research.chop.edu/blog/posts/teen-dating-violence-and-digital-abuse-during-covid-19-pandemic 

Zweig, Janine and Meredith Dank, “Teen Dating Abuse and Harassment in the Digital World: Implications for Prevention and Intervention,” Urban Institute, February 2013. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/23326/412750-Teen-Dating-Abuse-and-Harassment-in-the-Digital-World.PDF 

 

Bill Eddy headshotBILL EDDY, LCSW, Esq., is a family mediator, family lawyer, family counselor and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, California. He is the author of several books and the developer of methods for managing high-conflict situations, including New Ways for Families, a brief counseling or online and coaching method of learning skills for dealing with co-parenting in separation and divorce. The High Conflict Institute provides speakers and trainers to professionals around the world for managing high-conflict situations, as well as providing separated parents with numerous free articles. 

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