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Teens reporting dating violence and abuse on the rise

This is the first in a series about abuse and violence in adolescent dating and romantic relationships.

Q: What do we know about teen dating violence and abuse?

A: In 2001, the American Journal of Public Health declared teen dating violence an epidemic. One-third of teens were reporting physical, verbal or emotional abuse.

The Domestic Violence Action Center published a definition of teen dating violence in 2012. It is a pattern of control, in which one person tries to assert power and control over another person through verbal, psychological, physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence defines teen dating violence as occurring from ages 13 to 19. The coalition defines three differences between adult and teen romantic relationships. First, the power imbalance is not as unequal in teen relationships. Teen girls are not usually dependent on partners for financial support, nor do most of them have children. Teens also have much more limited experience with romantic relationships and conflict resolution. Third, teens more easily are influenced by peers than are adults.

A website called Violence Against Women Online Resources produces copious information about teen dating violence. A significant fact is dating violence increases with age through time. The website reiterates the behaviors included in different types of teen abuse.

Physical violence includes grabbing, slapping, shoving, hitting and pinching. Emotional abuse includes put-downs, insults, starting rumors, humiliation, threats, accusations, over-dependence, possessiveness, withdrawal of attention, threats to replace the partner and isolating a partner from significant others. Sexual abuse and violence include unwelcome touching, forced sexual activities, pressure for sex, inflicting pain sexually and rape.

This source also emphasizes teen abuse and violence are different from adult violence because of the developmental issues in adolescence. For example, abusive relationships diminish the capacity to think, learn and experience normal socialization processes. Teens also are dependent on parents and thus might be limited in changing schools or peer groups.

The following facts about teen dating violence are taken from a 2006 American Bar Association fact sheet based on the National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Initiative. Comparing adult with teen rates of violence reveals teens are at higher risk. The age range of highest risk is 16 to 24 years, covering late teens and early 20s.

Teen dating violence crosses race, gender and socioeconomic boundaries. Both males and females are victims but with different types of abuse. Girls are more likely to threaten to hurt themselves, yell, pinch, scratch, slap or kick. Boys injure girls more frequently and more seriously. Abuse varies in teen relationships from daily to occasionally.

Close to half of adult sexual offenders report initiating their first sexual offenses prior to age 18. Half the reported date rapes occur with teens. In a survey of parents, 81 percent either thought dating violence was not an issue or did not know. More than half the parents never had discussed dating violence with their children.

In research by Liz Claibourne Inc., 57 percent of teens knew someone who had been physically, sexually or verbally abused in dating. Another 45 percent of girls knew friends who had been pressured into oral or vaginal sex. In a third of teen abusive relationships, the victims told someone.

Various research studies reported on the American Bar Association website address teen perceptions and beliefs about sex. In a study of 1,600 juvenile sex offenders, 33 percent believed sex was a way of caring for someone, whereas 23.5 percent believed sex was a way to feel power and control, 9.4 percent saw sex as a way to dissipate anger and 8.4 percent as a method to punish someone.

In surveys of teens, both abusers and victims blamed victims for violent dating abuse. The causes named were provocation by the female, the victim's personality type, the girl's need for love, communication issues and peer group influences.

In another study, 77 percent of girls and 67 percent of boys endorsed selected forms of sexual coercion, such as unwanted hugging, kissing, genital contact and intercourse. A strong predictor of teen male violence was male peer support in post-secondary educational institutions.

Two facts stand out about teen dating violence. Patterns of dating violence frequently start early and then carry into adult relationships. When this pattern of abuse and violence starts early, the severity increases later in the relationships, or in other later relationships.

The Advocacy for Victims of Abuse 2013 website provides information about why teens keep teen dating violence hidden. Adolescents have little experience with dating relationships, they are pressured by peers into violent behavior, they want independence from their parents, and they have "romantic" views about love.

Another factor mentioned in the New York City website Day One is bystander issues as a reinforcer of silence among teens. In high school surveys, 40 percent of girls and 49 percent of boys reported other teenagers stood by and did nothing when observing abuse. In another study, girls experiencing teen violence reported their predicaments to family, teachers, counselors or another adult only 6 percent of the time.

Another factor reinforcing teen secrecy is the belief unhealthy relationships are the norm. This perception of teen abuse is supported by movies, television, magazines and family dysfunction.

* Next week's article will continue discussing what we know about teen dating violence.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.