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Five Things About Teen Dating Violence

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Date Published
May 1, 2023

Addressing teen dating violence, which includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, is a priority for healthy youth development. Teen dating violence is highly prevalent, with as many as 69% of youth reporting victimization.[1] In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are at higher risk for dating violence compared to heterosexual and cisgender youth.[2] Teens who experience dating violence — particularly when their victimizations go untreated — may be at increased risk for a range of negative outcomes, including involvement in further intimate partner violence as adults.

What has long-term funding of research taught us about how to understand and respond to teen dating violence?

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. Teen dating relationships that involve violence often involve mutual violence.

When it comes to dating violence, it was once thought that there are victims of abuse and there are those who abuse. We now understand that the picture is less clear. Through the first comprehensive national household survey of teen relationships, the NIJ-sponsored National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence, we have a more nuanced understanding of teen dating violence perpetration and victimization.[3]

Specifically, teen dating violence victimization and perpetration are often bidirectional; relationships that are characterized by violence typically involve mutual violence rather than one person being solely the victim and the other being solely the person committing the violence.[4] In fact, nearly 84% of victims also report perpetrating abuse,[5] and teen relationships with mutual violence are more likely to include only physical acts of violence, whereas relationships in which one person is the primary victim often also include coercion and control tactics.[6] Given the high degree of overlap, interventions should not be designed for monolithic groups of “victims” or “perpetrators,” but should instead consider contexts and implications for mutual violence.

2. Teen dating violence does not tend to occur in single, isolated instances, but rather in the context of a broader pattern of abusive behaviors over time.

Youth who are exposed to one type of violence are at greater risk of experiencing other types of violence.[7] Most victims of teen dating violence experience at least one other type of victimization, and on average victims experience over a dozen other victimizations.[8]

Prior exposure to abuse and violence in the family, among peers, and in the community has been linked to involvement in teen dating violence.[9] For example, youth who are involved in bullying are at greater risk for teen dating violence,[10] and different forms of family violence and conflict (e.g., witnessing violence between parents) are also associated with teen dating violence.[11] Teen dating violence is highly associated with some forms of child maltreatment (e.g., physical abuse by a caregiver), sexual victimization, and polyvictimization (experiencing a number of different types of victimizations).[12]

3. A range of risk factors is associated with becoming involved in teen dating violence.

Nearly 26% of women and 15% of men say they experienced dating violence before the age of 18.[13] Identifying risk factors is key to finding prevention and intervention points. Studies have identified a wide range of risk factors across multiple levels of the social-ecological model, including the individual level (e.g., beliefs, behaviors), the relationship level (e.g., peers, family), the community level (e.g., schools, neighborhoods), and the broader society level (e.g., cultural norms, policies).[14] Most research has focused on the individual level, including substance use disorders and mental health or psychological issues, and the relationship level, including childhood neglect and abuse, exposure to family violence, and bullying.[15]

Although there is less research on protective factors, positive and supportive family and peer relationships appear to significantly protect against teen dating violence.[16]

4. Teen dating violence is associated with both short and long-term negative outcomes, including negative mental and physical health, substance use disorders, and victimization or perpetration.

Negative outcomes across four broad domains are associated with teen dating violence:[17]

  • Mental and psychological health, such as suicidal ideation and attempts at suicide, and psychiatric conditions and symptoms. Girls who experience certain types of teen dating violence may be more likely to experience internalizing outcomes (e.g., depression) than boys.[18]
  • Physical health, such as unhealthy body mass index and risky sexual behaviors.[19]
  • Use and abuse of a range of substances, including nicotine, alcohol, various illicit substances, and prescription drugs.[20] These patterns vary across gender and specific types of substances. For example, physical victimization may be associated with increased cigarette and marijuana use, especially for girls.[21]
  • Victimization/perpetration, including different forms of violence (e.g., intimate partner violence, peer aggression).[22] Research suggests there are gender differences in the experience and response to dating violence and subsequent outcomes.[23] For example, trauma symptoms may mediate the association between physical dating violence victimization and later revictimization in adulthood for females, but not for males.[24]

5. Programs to reduce teen dating violence perpetration and victimization have demonstrated effectiveness.

Teens are unlikely to seek help after they experience dating violence, and boys in particular are less likely to seek help than girls.[25] Given all the findings and implications of research on teen dating violence, researchers have been examining effective strategies for prevention and intervention. Multiple evaluations of a range of programs designed to prevent or reduce dating and sexual violence for youth and young adults indicate that some models work well in improving teens’ knowledge of and attitudes about abuse and violence in intimate/dating relationships, as well as reducing dating violence perpetration. See the practice profile for Programs To Reduce Dating and Sexual Violence for Youth and Young Adults.

A couple of programs are highlighted below.

The Safe Dates program is a school-based prevention program for middle and high school students that is designed to stop or prevent dating violence perpetration and victimization. Among other goals, the program attempts to change norms on dating violence and gender roles and improve conflict resolution skills for dating relationships. The program was found to reduce psychological, physical, and sexual abuse perpetration and physical abuse victimization at the four-year follow-up.

The Shifting Boundaries (Classroom Curriculum and Schoolwide Intervention) program for middle school students is designed to reduce peer and dating violence and sexual harassment by highlighting consequences of these behaviors and increasing faculty surveillance of unsafe areas. The program was found to reduce sexual victimization and violence victimization and perpetration.

Date Published: May 1, 2023