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Feature Article


Teen dating violence

Kim Leon, Ph.D., former State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri Extension




Dating violence affects many teens today. Estimates of how many teens experience violence in dating relationships range from 9-82%, depending on whether all forms of dating violence or only incidents of physical violence are counted.


Several studies have found that about 20-30% of teens have experienced physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship. When verbal and emotional violence are included, percentages are much higher.


Rates of teen dating violence in gay and lesbian relationships are similar to rates in heterosexual dating relationships. Teen dating violence occurs in all ethnic groups and at all economic levels. Teens who experience dating violence are at risk for problems including substance abuse, unhealthy weight control (such as using laxatives), pregnancy, risky sexual behavior, sexually transmitted diseases, hopelessness, self-harming behaviors, suicide and homicide.




Teen dating violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors that are used to gain power and control over a current or former dating partner. There are four types of dating violence. Some examples are listed for each type, but other abusive or coercive behaviors that are done with the intent of controlling the partner would also be considered dating violence.


  • Verbal — name-calling, put-downs, yelling or shouting, threatening the partner or one of the partner’s friends or family members
  • Emotional — excessive jealousy, trying to control the partner’s activities or how the partner does things like telling him/her how to dress, contacting frequently to “keep tabs” on the partner, stalking
  • Physical — hitting, slapping, punching, shoving, pinching, kicking, hair pulling
  • Sexual — unwanted touching or kissing, forcing the partner to have sex or engage in any unwanted sexual activity, not allowing the partner to use birth control




The abusive behaviors that occur in teen dating violence are similar to those that occur in adult domestic violence, but teen dating violence has unique dynamics.


It may be more difficult for teens to recognize abuse because they have less relationship experience. They may also interpret jealousy and controlling behaviors as signs of love.


Some studies have reported that the frequency of engaging in teen dating violence is similar for females and males, but these studies usually overlook the context and effects of the violence. For example, females usually report using violence for self-defense, but males usually report using violence to intimidate, frighten or control their partners. When females experience dating violence, they are more likely to have serious injuries that require medical treatment and to feel emotionally distressed and afraid. When males experience dating violence, they are less likely to be injured and are more likely to laugh it off or get angry.


Teens are most likely to either tell a friend about the violence or to not tell anyone. One study found that only 6 percent told a family member or other adult.


There are many barriers that prevent teens in violent dating situations from seeking help. These include:

  • They are often afraid to tell an adult. Many adults such as teachers and counselors are required to report abuse of a minor to child protective services and may notify the teen’s parents. They may not want their parents to know because the violence may have occurred while they were doing something they are not allowed to do.
  • They fear that the abuser will retaliate. They may be in real danger — abuse often escalates when the victim leaves the relationship.
  • They are afraid that peers will lose respect for them.
  • They still have an emotional attachment to the abuser and don’t want to leave the relationship.
  • In some states it is not possible for a minor to get an order of protection against another minor.
  • Many shelters do not accept minors.


What to do if you are experiencing dating violence

  • Talk to someone you trust. Get adult help if you can. If you feel you can’t tell an adult you know, call your local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
  • Plan for your safety at home, school and in community settings, whether you are staying in the relationship or leaving it. This includes planning who you can go to for help and what to do to escape a dangerous situation.
  • Have phone numbers you can call in case of an emergency and have a cell phone with you at all times.
  • Avoid being alone or being alone with the abuser. Try to be with a friend, family member or other people at home, school and in public places.
  • Vary your routes and schedule so you don’t go to the same places at the same times each day.
  • When you go out, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
  • Keep a record with dates and descriptions of each violent incident.
  • Recognize that there is nothing you can do that will change your partner’s behavior, but there are things you can do to keep yourself safe.


What to do if a friend is experiencing dating violence


  • Remind your friend that this is not his/her fault. Avoid blaming your friend for being in this situation.
  • Avoid telling your friend that he/she has to leave the relationship. Your friend may be afraid of being harmed if he or she leaves the relationship. Abusers try very hard to maintain power and control over their victims, so your friend may feel powerless to leave.
  • Be there for your friend and be patient. You may not agree with your friend’s choices, but keep letting your friend know you are concerned and keep supporting your friend in making her/his own decisions.
  • Encourage your friend to get adult help. Offer to go with your friend to seek help.
  • Help your friend plan ways to stay safe at home, school and in community settings.
  • Contact a local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline for more information on how you can support your friend.


For more information, see Teen Dating Violence -- Awareness and Prevention


If you or someone you know is experiencing dating violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)



Jackson, S.M., Cram, F., & Seymour, F. W. (2000). Violence and sexual coercion in high school students’ dating relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 15, 23-36.

Joyce, E. (Fall 2003/Winter 2004). Teen Dating Violence: Facing the Epidemic. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Victims of Crime.

National Center for Victims of Crime. (2004). Dating Violence and If You Are a Victim of Teen Dating Violence. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Victims of Crime.

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. (2004). Teen Dating Violence Information and Resources. Harrisburg, PA: National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

O’Keefe, M. (2005). Teen Dating Violence: A Review of Risk Factors and Prevention Efforts. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet.

Silverman, J. G., Raj, A., Mucci, L. A., & Hathaway, J. E. (2001). Dating violence against adolescent girls and associated substance use, unhealthy weight control, sexual risk behavior, pregnancy, and suicidality. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 572-579.


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