Commentary: Teen dating violence needs to be addressed

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and a time to pause and consider the prevalence and the impact of teen relationship violence.

Often we associate dating violence only with adults, but many times the seeds of adult intimate partner violence were planted in unhealthy teen relationships. Twenty-three percent of female victims first experienced intimate partner violence before the age of 21.

It is critically important for us to pay attention to how young people are interacting with each other as friends, schoolmates and dating partners and equally important to be engaged as caring adults, encouraging and modeling healthy relationships. Our awareness of this pressing problem empowers our conversations with teens as well as our work in schools and the community.

Given the prevalence, we urgently need to address teen dating violence. Recognizing how pervasive teen relationship violence is and how it deeply impacts adolescents and young people, is essential for developing intervention and prevention responses.

Sue Ryan

Each year in the United States at least 400,000 adolescents experience serious physical and/or sexual violence in a dating relationship. Statistics reveal that one in three teens experience dating violence.

Teen dating violence occurs in all relationships, both straight and same-sex. The violence can involve physical harm, emotional abuse, sexual violence, and online harassment, such as using social media to bully, shame or intimidate. Sometimes the violence escalates, beginning with jealous and controlling behavior, becoming emotional abuse, and then evolving into physical violence. Sometimes the physical violence is immediate.

This violence can have both a short-term and long-term impact including depression, anxiety, unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, drug use, disruptive behavior such as lying, stealing, fighting, and sometimes even suicide. As noted, violence that occurs during teen dating can influence future relationships because the foundation of trust has been severely damaged. Research indicates that youth who are victims of dating violence in high school are at higher risk for victimization during college and teen dating violence can lead to adult intimate partner violence.

The trauma from teen dating violence is devastating to a teen’s sense of self and safety and the impact can last a lifetime. This trauma can make it very difficult for teens to recognize or talk about the relationship.

The abusive, controlling behaviors of a friend or dating partner may be misinterpreted by a teen and viewed as “love.” This misunderstanding is exacerbated by media messages, TV shows, and movies that depict jealous, even stalking behavior, as romantic. Unhealthy relationships are anchored in gender-bias and the relentless destructive messaging that girls are less than boys, and that boys must physically, emotionally and sexually dominate girls. Gender-bias harms everyone, women and men; it fosters unhealthy masculinity and undermines healthy relationships.

There are steps we can take to address and respond to encourage healthy relationships. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shared strategies for communities working to prevent teen dating violence. These strategies are anchored in best-practices and national research.

The strategies include proactively teaching safe and healthy relationships. Understanding what a healthy relationship is requires dialogue and conversation, that is open, supportive and safe. As noted, teens receive many messages about relationships and some of this information is based on unhealthy gender-norms. To counter these harmful messages, it is important for schools, families and communities to actively engage teens in dialogue around healthy relationships.

To be effective, the dialogue should include influential adults and men, such as fathers, coaches, teachers who can serve as prevention allies and role models. Schools should be safe places with plentiful information about healthy relationships and access to services for youth in need. Families need support too, including financial help, to relieve the stress of economic insecurity that can underpin violence.

Supports that strengthen a family empower healthy relationships and communities. Our commitment to increase our understanding and to encourage and practice healthy relationships empowers our teens and young persons and fosters relationships that are safe, supportive and healthy.

If you or someone you know is in an unhealthy relationship, there are resources available.

Delaware has 24-hour hotlines for victims of dating and domestic violence; these hotlines help teens and adults by connecting individuals to local resources and supports:

New Castle County (302) 762-6110

Kent/Sussex counties (302) 422-8058

24-hour Relationship Violence Hotline (en español) (302) 745-9874

Delaware also has 24-hour Rape/Sexual Assault Hotlines for teens and adults:

YWCA SARC (New Castle/Sussex Counties) (800) 773-8570

Contact Lifeline Crisis Helpline (Kent/Sussex Counties) (800) 262-9800

The Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence (DCADV) is also working with community advocates and programs to develop and host a healthy teen relationship website called Safe & Respectful. The website will be launching in February, during Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Safe & Respectful will be a resource for teens and adults working with teens.

There are a number of national resources that teens can access via phone or online:

24-hour Relationship Violence Hotline (866) 331-9474

24-hour Relationship Violence Text Line Text: LOVEIS to 22522

24-hour Relationship Violence Online Chat

National Sexual Assault Hotline (operated by RAINN)

24-hour Sexual Assault Hotline (800) 656-HOPE

24-hour Sexual Assault Online Chat

Everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves to be safe. If you or someone you know is in an unhealthy relationship, please contact a Delaware or national hotline for help and support.

Sue Ryan is executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

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