When adolescents start to explore dating, romance, and sex, a troubling number fall victim to violence. In the United States, up to 19% of teens experience sexual or physical dating violence, about half face stalking or harassment, and as many as 65% report being psychologically abused (“Teen Dating Violence,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, 2022).
In many cases, violence can happen when young people don’t yet have the skills to manage conflict, cope with feelings of jealousy, and navigate rejection. Those challenges have intensified with the rise of social media: Many teen social interactions now play out in public online spaces, adding feelings of shame and fear of judgment to the mix.
“It’s developmentally appropriate for young people to explore their sexuality, but as a society we haven’t figured out how to support that while protecting them from a risk of violence,” said psychologist Sherry Hamby, PhD, who directs the Life Paths Research Center in Sewanee, Tennessee, and studies multiple forms of violence.
While sexual and relationship violence affecting other age groups—including adults, college students, and children—is a major focus of research and policy, experts say adolescents have gotten less attention.
“Teen dating violence seems to be overlooked, not only in the scientific community but in society at large,” said Antonio Piolanti, PhD, a postdoctoral assistant in health psychology at Universität Klagenfurt in Austria who studies ways to prevent sexual and dating violence.
Psychologists are shining a light on the issue with research insights on risk and protective factors, as well as new approaches to prevention that prioritize skills and strengths over traditional psychoeducation. Promising interventions include training on emotion regulation and communication skills, bystander intervention and peer-led programs, and digital monitoring that can help predict teens’ risk for real-world violence. Those efforts not only protect teens during a critical period of development but can reduce their risk for intimate partner violence (IPV) later in life.
“There’s a lot to be excited about, because we’re finally recognizing that with the right approach, we can intervene in a way that really changes the trajectory for young people,” said Christie Rizzo, PhD, an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston who uses skills-based approaches to reduce violence and other risks in youth.
Short- and long-term harm
Violence in teen relationships can take several forms. It can involve stalking or harassment, such as spying on a partner or monitoring private online activity without permission, or psychological aggression, such as threats, insults, or attempts to control. In cases of physical and sexual violence, one partner may physically harm another, force them to engage in sex acts against their will, or share intimate photos without consent (“Fast Facts: Preventing Teen Dating Violence,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2023).
Estimates vary regarding the prevalence of teen dating violence. According to 2019 data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 1 in 12 teens experience physical dating violence and about the same number face sexual dating violence. Other studies suggest rates may be higher, especially when accounting for psychological forms of abuse. In one nationally representative study of young people ages 14 to 21, 51% of females and 43% of males reported being victims of at least one type of dating violence, while 50% of females and 35% of males reported perpetrating at least one type (Ybarra, M. L., et al., Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 45, 2016). Gender differences exist in both victimization and perpetration, with males more likely to enact sexual violence and females more likely to enact psychological violence.
Research increasingly indicates that much of the violence in teen relationships is mutual, or perpetrated by both partners, though girls face a higher risk of sexual violence than do boys (“Who Perpetrates Teen Dating Violence?,” National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice). Older adolescents, those who identify as Native North American or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ also experience higher rates of dating violence (Fix, R. L., et al., Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 37, No. 17–18, 2021).
Dating violence can cause significant harm over both the short and long term. In an analysis of nearly 10,000 teens from the United Kingdom’s Millennium Cohort Study, teens who experienced sexual violence between ages 14 and 17 had worse mental health at 17. Specifically, they had more psychological distress and were more likely to report self-harm in the past year, including attempted suicide (The Lancet Psychiatry, Vol. 9, No. 11, 2022).
“These findings are incredibly concerning, because this is already an age where young people are particularly vulnerable to mental health difficulties,” said Praveetha Patalay, PhD, a professor of population health and well-being at University College London and the study’s lead author.
In the long run, involvement with dating violence in adolescence predicts IPV in adulthood, as well as other high-risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, according to a systematic review of 38 studies led by Piolanti (Pediatrics, Vol. 151, No. 6, 2023).
“Understanding and addressing teen dating violence is so important, because we know that traumatic experiences that happen during adolescence can have lifelong harmful effects,” Hamby said.
The roots of violence
Like violence in adult relationships, violence among teens is multifaceted and has multiple causes. Children who experience trauma, poverty, or a range of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of violence during adolescence. Research has also linked perpetration to approval of violence and adversarial sexual beliefs (such as the belief that power over one’s partner is important), as well as depression, externalizing behaviors, alcohol use, risky sexual behaviors, and juvenile delinquency (Taquette, S. R., & Monteiro, D. L. M., Journal of Injury and Violence Research, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2019; Spencer, C. M., et al., Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2019).
In some cases, dating violence may be part of a pattern of antisocial or aggressive behavior. But much of the time, teens may simply not know how to manage the emotions and conflicts that arise as they enter their first relationships, said Ernest Jouriles, PhD, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. For example, they may lack the experience to distinguish what behaviors constitute stalking or excessive jealousy from healthy romantic or sexual interest. At the same time, adolescents are experiencing the physical and psychological changes inherent to puberty, including a prefrontal cortex that’s still developing, Hamby said.
“There are a lot of cognitive and developmental challenges that make teens much more vulnerable than adults to getting into problematic relationships,” she said.
Psychologists have traditionally studied teen dating violence separately from other risks that affect adolescents, such as bullying, unprotected sex, and sexual harassment and violence that occur outside of relationships. But increasingly, research shows that those experiences are often linked, including studies of “polyvictimization,” or exposure to multiple forms of violence, by Hamby, David Finkelhor, PhD, of the University of New Hampshire, and their colleagues (Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 58, No. 2, 2016). Those various forms of violence share similar risk factors, including family violence and other ACEs—as well as similar protective factors.
“That’s taught us that from a prevention perspective, these things are often co-occurring, and we need to think more about how they’re interconnected,” said psychologist Victoria Banyard, PhD, a professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
There’s also a growing recognition by researchers that dating abuse can and does happen online, Rizzo said. Examples include using technology to monitor a partner’s whereabouts and sexting without consent. In addition to the psychological harm online abuse can cause, it can also be a precursor for in-person violence. With that in mind, Rizzo is now collecting data directly from teens’ cell phones, including text messages and social media communication, with the goal of predicting when in-person violence may occur and intervening with preventive messaging.
Additionally, the field is moving away from an individual-level approach to teen dating violence that focuses primarily on victims and perpetrators, said Banyard. Instead, there’s a growing recognition of the role culture and communities play in perpetuating violence. For example, research by psychologist Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and her colleagues has shown that teachers reinforce a school culture of sexual and dating violence when they dismiss sexual harassment that happens in the classroom or victim-blame when a student reports an incident (Journal of School Health, Vol. 93, No. 4, 2023).
“If students who engage in sexual harassment gain popularity and don’t face consequences, they’re going to continue doing that unless the larger culture sends them a different message,” Espelage said.
Improving regulation and communication
As the understanding of teen dating violence has evolved, so too have efforts to prevent it. Traditional psychoeducation programs—which largely involve describing warning signs during health class—can improve knowledge and attitudes but do little to change behavior (De La Rue, L., et al., Review of Educational Research, Vol. 87, No. 1, 2016).
“Even though it might seem counterintuitive, getting up in front of a group and telling them that dating and sexual violence are bad doesn’t have very much impact,” Hamby said.
While it can be helpful to raise awareness about dating violence, researchers are learning that there are more robust ways to promote protective factors and reduce risk.
“We have this idea that if we’re not talking directly about violence, then we’re not preventing that form of violence,” Banyard said. “But our research is starting to show that that’s not true.”
Now, psychologists are increasingly taking a community-oriented, strengths-based approach to prevention and intervention. They’re borrowing strategies from couples counseling, as well as mental health treatment for conditions such as conduct disorder, to teach teens how to handle their own relationship challenges and how to step in when a friend needs help.
One solution involves focusing on building overall resilience that bolsters behavior in relation to partners. Teaching teens regulatory, interpersonal, and meaning-making skills is at the heart of the resilience portfolio model, conceived by Banyard, Hamby, and their colleague John Grych, PhD, of Marquette University in Milwaukee (Psychology of Violence, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2015). Meaning-making strengths give adolescents a sense of purpose and a voice, while interpersonal strengths help them learn how to talk to a partner about relationship challenges or express concern for a friend who’s in trouble. Regulatory strengths help teens learn to manage feelings of anger, shame, and jealousy that arise in daily life. For example: How can teens navigate rejection by a partner, especially when that rejection plays out publicly on social media?
“In the digital world, in particular, it can be tough to manage the emotions that come up when you see your partner’s social life play out in front of you—their interactions with other people and pictures they’re posting,” said Rizzo.
Armed with the knowledge that teen dating violence is linked to other risks during adolescence, psychologists are also thinking about prevention more broadly rather than attempting to address things like dating violence, sexual violence, and safe sex in silos.
“That means that in addition to teaching teens about anger and conflict management, we’re talking about things like what to do if your partner is pressuring you to have sex,” Rizzo said.
Abrams, Z. (2023, October 1). Up to 19% of teens experience dating violence. Psychologists want to break the cycle. Monitor on Psychology, 54(7). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/10/disrupting-teen-dating-violence