Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Bad Romance: How Acting on Warning Signs Can Help Stop Adolescent Dating Abuse

May 10, 2018

When a 17-year-old student, Austin Wyatt Rollins, brought a gun into Great Mills High School in Maryland on March 20, he wounded two students, including his former girlfriend.

The incident raises many questions about whether there were any warning signs of emotional or physical violence prior to this assault. For teens and pre-teens, romance can be exciting and confusing; for the adults in their lives, including parents, teachers and healthcare providers, it may be difficult to discern the fine line between infatuation and abuse. 

Encouraging teens to talk with their parents and other trusted adults about what they’re experiencing is a key part of preventing or stopping dating violence. However, some youth caught in an unhealthy relationship may not be comfortable going to an adult for help or may not even realize they are in a potentially dangerous situation. Teens may be especially vulnerable to abuse because of their inexperience with relationships and their desire to be accepted by their peers.

Dating violence can take several forms, including 1) physical; 2) sexual; and 3) emotional and such behaviors may occur in person or digitally, such as by text message, email, or other social media.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of high school boys reported being physically hurt on purpose by a dating partner in the past year. In addition, 16 percent of high school girls and 5 percent of high school boys said a dating partner forced them to do something sexual within the past year.

As is true in among adults, much of teen dating violence may be unseen by those outside the relationship. Therefore, it may be particularly challenging for adults to support youth experiencing unhealthy relationships. Awareness of potential warning signs may be the only way to know that a relationship may be harmful.

Teens and pre-teens experiencing emotional or physical abuse may start to behave differently or change their habits.  Dressing differently, decreasing time spent with friends and family, or abrupt changes in habits or routines, may all be signs that a relationship is unhealthy.  Some signs, such as constant communication with their partner or becoming more emotionally dependent on their partner, may reflect an evolving relationship, but may also reflect potentially abusive behaviors. It is important to be aware of changes that may reflect unhealthy relationship behaviors and to create opportunities to discuss relationship behaviors with teens. 

Parents and other adults who believe a teen or pre-teen is involved in an unhealthy or potentially harmful relationship can take the following steps:

  • Model positive behavior in your own relationships. Kids need to see what constitutes healthy relationship behaviors and how safe relationships are established between partners.  
  • Don’t wait until teens begin to date to talk about healthy relationships. It’s never too early to start to discuss relationship behaviors with youth, as violence and abuse may begin very early in a relationship. Take steps to provide guidance about healthy relationships before teens find themselves trying to navigate dating partnerships.
  • Be a trusted adult who is supportive and willing to listen without judgment. Adults often want to rush to fix problems or discipline youth, but keeping the lines of communication open by engaging with your kids and showing interest in their activities in a non-judgmental manner is critical to being able to help youth potentially experiencing violence.
  • Keep your eyes open. Be on the lookout for warning signs such as abrupt changes in behavior, friends or communication styles. While some changes are normal and expected as teens navigate adolescence and romantic relationships, be comfortable discussing your observations with your teen and help them learn to set boundaries within their relationships. 
  • Take advantage of available resources. Children’s Safety Network’s “Teen Dating Abuse: 2018 Resource Guide” provides links to organizations; prevention programs; data, fact sheets and toolkits; and research focused on preventing teen dating abuse. A recent JAMA Pediatrics article also suggests some helpful talking points for both parents and clinicians when talking to teens about dating, including asking about a teen’s concept about relationships, the role of friendships, and the stage of activities in the relationship.

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