A parent's guide to teen dating violence


Teenage romance can be sweet, emotional and exciting. But for one out of every 10 American teens, those early relationships are physically abusive. Between 20% and 30% of teens report being abused verbally or emotionally by someone they are dating, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

To prevent teen dating violence (TDV), experts recommend reinforcing healthy relationship messages with your child beginning at an early age. As a parent, it’s also important to learn about the risk factors and be watchful for signs of abuse. That way, you’ll be prepared to react quickly to minimize long-term effects for your child.

What is teen dating violence?

Abusive relationships can take many forms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies four types of behavior that qualify as teen dating violence:

  • Physical violence, when one person causes injury to another using physical force
  • Sexual violence, or forcing a partner to participate in a sex act
  • Psychological abuse, when verbal or nonverbal actions cause emotional harm
  • Stalking, or a pattern of unwanted attention and contact

While physical and sexual violence happens face-to-face, psychological aggression and stalking can happen either in person or electronically. Perpetrators may use texts and online platforms to send abusive messages or post inappropriate pictures. No matter how the abuse is delivered, it can cause distress and shame for a teen.

Effects of dating violence on teens

TDV can have a devastating effect on a young person’s emotional and social development. Victims of TDV are more likely to:

  • Develop an eating disorder or turn to unhealthy dieting tactics
  • Engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors that include tobacco, alcohol, drugs and sex
  • Exhibit rebellious behavior such as stealing, bullying and lying
  • Experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts

Violence in teen dating also can set the stage for a lifetime of unhealthy relationships. According to the CDC, 26% of women and 15% of men who experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes first experienced dating abuse before age 18.

Risk factors for dating violence

TDV affects teens of every race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. But certain lifestyle and emotional factors can increase the likelihood a teen will experience dating violence. According to the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, the risk of being the victim of TDV increases for teens who:

  • Are exposed to violence in their community or neighborhood
  • Begin being sexually active before age 16
  • Experience low self-esteem or depression
  • Have a history of sexual abuse or victimization
  • Participate in risky behaviors that may include substance abuse or alcohol use
  • Spend time around violent peers or friends involved in dating violence

There are also circumstances that may make a teen more likely to inflict TDV. The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs lists risk factors associated with perpetrators of dating violence that include:

  • Association with violent peers
  • Exposure to violence at home or in the community
  • Low self-esteem or depression
  • Minimal or no parental supervision or support
  • Problems managing anger or frustration

Warning signs that your teen is the victim in an abusive relationship

Only 33% of TDV victims ever tell anyone about the abuse. Teens who are new to dating may think some unhealthy behaviors are acceptable in a relationship. For others, the nature of the abuse may cause embarrassment and fear.

Even if your child does not talk about what’s going on, certain behaviors can raise a red flag. If your teen is in an unhealthy relationship, he or she may:

  • Apologize and make excuses for the behavior of a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Be pressured by their significant other about where to go, what to do and what to wear
  • Give up or lose interest in favorite activities
  • Have unexplained injuries
  • Spend less time with family and friends, becoming noticeably isolated and depressed
  • Start missing school or fail to do schoolwork
  • Worry excessively about upsetting a boyfriend or girlfriend

Tips for talking to teens about dating violence

Parents and caregivers can play an important role in preventing and responding to TDV. As your child begins dating, start a dialogue about appropriate dating behavior and the signs of an unhealthy relationship. Having these discussions early may open the door to more serious conversations later.

If you have concerns that your son or daughter is involved in an unhealthy or violent relationship, voicing your worries can be tricky. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests you plan to have the conversation in private and consider these suggestions:

  • Listen without judgement: Try to be supportive even if you disagree with your child’s point of view or feelings about the abusive partner. Being judgmental may make your teen less likely to come to you again.
  • Let your teen be in control: An unhealthy relationship is about power and abuse. Making relationship decisions for your child will only add to your teen’s distress. Instead, gently guide your son or daughter and offer support as he or she decides how to handle the situation.
  • Don’t force restrictions: Unless you suspect the threat of physical harm, consider allowing the relationship to continue. Prohibiting your teen from seeing a boyfriend or girlfriend may invite an emotional reaction and break the trust you share. Try to be present and watchful when they are together instead of forcing the relationship to continue in secrecy.
  • Prioritize privacy: Avoid discussing your child’s situation with anyone beyond a trusted family member or medical professional. It may put your teen in danger or break the trust you’ve built.
  • Don’t give up: Don’t get frustrated if your child isn’t ready to end the relationship right away. Just keep the conversation going. As long as there is no threat of physical harm, watch closely and wait. Let your child navigate the situation while you continue to provide guidance and support.

If you are concerned that your teen’s relationship is abusive or otherwise unhealthy, reach out to your child’s primary care provider.