By: Chafica Khodr Agha, Esq. and Sofia Schlesinger
Teen Dating Violence (TDV) is defined by the National Institute of Justice as the “physical, psychological, sexual abuse, harassment, or stalking of any person age 12-19 in a past or present romantic relationship.” In the U.S., 33 percent of adolescents are victims of sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional dating abuse. Research funded and published by the Government of Scotland indicates that when a teen abuser becomes violent in a relationship, he or she may also become violent in other contexts, which can continue well into adulthood. Additionally, females between the ages of 16 and 24 are roughly three times more likely than the rest of the U.S. population to be abused by an intimate partner.
Addressing TDV and educating law enforcement on trauma-informed responses to teen victims and witnesses can act as a unique form of domestic violence and intimate partner violence prevention. In recent years, law enforcement agencies including the California Attorney General, the San Antonio Police Department (CA), the Westport Police Department (CT), the Yuma County Attorney's Office (AZ), and the Mecklenburg County government (NC) have all taken steps to: (1) raise awareness about the importance of addressing TDV, (2) provide resources to local communities, and (3) train officers to respond effectively to cases involving TDV. Project Safe Neighborhoods task forces, local law enforcement, prosecutors, victim service providers, and community-based actors can take similar steps to address and respond to TDV in order to reduce intimate partner violence in the long term.
This article aims to provide an overview of the prevalence and signs of TDV, as well as initial steps to consider as you respond to these issues in your jurisdiction in order to mitigate its harmful effects, and prevent the likelihood of domestic violence manifesting later in life.
What is Teen Dating Violence?
Currently, eight states in the U.S. still do not consider a violent adolescent dating relationship to be domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, making it increasingly difficult for teens to seek restraining orders and other forms of legal protection from their abusers. While in states that do have TDV laws in place, many teen victims are young and do not understand victimization or how to seek assistance. This allows for the victim to continue experiencing violence and abuse during adolescence, which over time might become normalized in their romantic relationships.
Teen dating violence typically includes four types of behavior:
Physical violence: hurting or attempting to hurt another through hitting, kicking, scratching, shoving, hair pulling, or any type of physical force;
Sexual violence: forcing or attempting to force another to engage in a sexual act when the victim does not or cannot consent;
Psychological aggression: using behavior (verbal or nonverbal) to attempt to harm another mentally or emotionally; this may include bullying, shaming, intentionally embarrassing, or exerting control over another person;
Stalking: repeated, unwanted attention, contact, or following by another that causes or attempts to cause fear of one’s safety or the safety of another person close to the victim.
Mounting evidence links exposure to family violence with the perpetration of teen dating violence. This correlation can be explained by social learning theory -- new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others.
Studies show that the likelihood of someone engaging in TDV increases for teens who:
Experience stressful life events or show symptoms of trauma, including past sexual abuse or victimization;
Live in poverty, come from disadvantaged homes, or are placed in child protective services;
Are exposed to violence at home, on-campus, or in their community;
Participate in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, alcohol use, or gang violence;
Begin dating at an early age, including as early as elementary school (72 percent of 13- and 14-year olds are “dating”);
Have friend(s) who are directly engaged in dating violence as a victim or abuser (can be both);
Believe that dating violence is acceptable or are more accepting of violence against women;
Have been exposed to harsh parenting, inconsistent discipline, or lack of supervision, monitoring, and warmth;
Have low self-esteem, anger, or depressed mood;
Witness violence at home or in the community.
Here are some signs that one can look for to identify whether an adolescent or teenager may be a victim of TDV:
Becoming isolated from friends and family members;
Losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyed;
Apologizing and making excuses for the abusive behavior of the dating partner;
Being called names and demeaned by dating partner in public;
Having a dating partner who is extremely jealous of attention from other boys or girls;
Having a dating partner who breaks objects, hurts animals, or threatens people or things the victims cares about;
Having bruises or injuries that cannot be satisfactorily explained;
Being constantly monitored by a dating partner through phone calls, texts, or other people.
How Does Teen Dating Violence Affect Victims?
Some common consequences of TDV are that victims are more likely to:
Do poorly in school or not attend school due to feeling unsafe;
Report binge drinking, smoking, using drugs, or engaging in unhealthy diet behavior;
Become pregnant as a teen or have an STD;
Attempt suicide or report feelings of hopelessness and sadness;
Develop a negative body image and become uncomfortable with their sexuality;
Be overly dependent on others and not achieve independence;
Enter into violent adult relationships;
Have difficulty establishing intimacy with a partner;
Have difficulty developing a personal value system or seeking a community;
Have difficulty establishing an adult identity.
One 2012 study found that those who experienced teen dating violence in their adolescent years reported increased intimate partner violence victimization five years later as young adults. This is because teens who witness and experience domestic violence often learn and adopt aggressive behaviors, and may even view violence as a viable problem-solving option in intimate relationships, which progresses into adulthood.
These long lasting impacts of teen dating violence emphasize the importance of early prevention programs for teenagers and the need for law enforcement, schools, and healthcare providers to offer their best resources. As mentioned previously, since TDV victimization is a strong predictor of future domestic violence victimization, addressing this issue also acts as a strategy for preventing domestic violence, and other forms of violent crime.
A 2007 study conducted in New York City high schools found that teen dating violence is often associated with perpetrating other forms of youth violence: boys who carried a weapon within the last month and/or were gang members in the last year were significantly more likely to become perpetrators of TDV. A gang is an organization of individuals who collaborate together for social reasons, but violence is the cornerstone of gang activity. Gang members often possess a desire for power and control not only on the streets, but also in their relationships with teen victims. The direct correlation that exists between gang membership and TDV can be explained by the frequent physical, sexual, and emotional female victimization in gangs. Young women who are involved romantically with gang members are viewed as sexual objects, and often forced into sex with members during initiation. If attempting to leave a domestically violent relationship with a gang member, the victim can be faced with an increased threat of deadly violence.
Technology, Intimidation, and Teen Dating Violence
The recent increase in technology and social media use among teenagers has created a new avenue where TDV may occur. Social media, text messaging, and email provides perpetrators of TDV with more opportunities to control and frighten their victims, even when physically apart. A study by the Urban Institute found that one in four dating teens reported being abused or harassed by their partners digitally. Rates were even higher for LGBTQ+ youth. Yet, less than 10 percent of TDV victims of cyber-intimidation sought help thereafter.
Cyberstalking and intimidation poses unique challenges for law enforcement. As cases can be extremely difficult to prosecute since many states have no specific criminal cyber-intimidation laws. In order to impose criminal liability, prosecutors often must utilize existing harassment laws which do not fully address cyber-intimidation issues. It can also be hard to identify what constitutes cyberbullying at a legal level. If the perpetrator is contacting the victim from a different city, state, or country, jurisdictional limitations make the case even harder to prosecute. Additionally, the internet provides a level of anonymity that puts the cyberstalker in an advantageous position over investigators.
Since cyber-intimidation and cyberstalking is so common among teenagers, it is important for law enforcement to consider the possibilities of digital intimidation when investigating TDV cases.
How Can We Stop Teen Dating Violence?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the following proactive strategies for mitigating and preventing TDV:
Do's and Don'ts for For Law Enforcement to Consider in Responding to TDV:
DOs -- These are strategies law enforcement should use in responding to TDV on-campus and in local communities:
Have a clear understanding of the definition of TDV, and local/state policies and protocols surrounding it.
Help schools to understand what constitutes dating violence and when it becomes a crime.
Help educators understand the recourse available to victims, such as restraining orders, and other important tools for safety.
Make sure to educate yourself on community coordinated resources for dating violence, sexual assault, LGBTQ+ youth, non-English speaking youth, and homeless/runaway youth.
Create an effective reporting system on-campus so victims or bystanders feel safe coming forward.
Work with schools to institute training and create standardized protocols for school officials on how to respond to TDV.
Encourage student leadership and youth activism to address teen dating violence at school and in their communities
When working directly with teen victims, DO:
Approach the victim conversationally and explain that you are there to help.
Educate students about their rights and responsibilities in a relationship, and provide them with resources and knowledge to access the civil and criminal justice systems.
Mirror the teen’s body language (remember your power and authority, the teen may feel intimidated by that, so it is important to be aware).
Use age- and developmentally-appropriate language when asking about the incident(s).
To ensure the victim’s safety, a protection order might be necessary. Explain to the victim what a civil protection order is. Inform them if their parent must be involved (if the victim is a minor), and if same-sex relationships are involved, discuss how to approach parents who maybe unaware of the TDV or their child's sexual orientation, to address any fears they might have;
Help the victim to feel that the decision to come forward and seek assistance is the their own, and that he or she is not in trouble.
DON'Ts-- These are strategies law enforcement should not use in responding to TDV
Law enforcement officers are not advised to pursue a dual arrest. In most cases, one party is the aggressor and one is reacting to the aggression. A dual arrest can make the victim more distrustful of the justice system and less likely to call the authorities in the future.
It is very important that law enforcement not forget to inform the victim on the basics of safety planning. Offer to connect them to a teen dating violence advocate.
Responding officers should avoid making or voicing judgements about the teen’s relationship, choices, or sexual activity. Such judgements may alienate the victim and impede their acceptance of assistance and participation in the investigation.
Questions with a victim-blaming tone, such as “Why didn’t you…?” should be avoided. Open-ended questions such as, “What do you remember?” or “Did he/she hurt you physically?” are more helpful in an investigation.
It is important that law enforcement not make assumptions regarding the victim’s sexuality. Teen dating violence may occur across the spectrum of intimate relationships.
Law enforcement should avoid assuming that abuse is less severe in a new or causal relationship. There is no data to support this.
National Resources for Teen Dating Violence
The National Dating Abuse Hotline is specifically designed for teens and young adults with trained peer advocates available for education, support, and advocacy 24/7. Call 1-866-331-9474, text “loveis” to 1-866-331-9474, or chat via their website.
Break the Cycle supports people ages 12-24 with resources to build healthy relationships and a culture without abuse. Resources for teens, educators, parents, and more can be found on their website, including legal help and services.
Love is Respect is a resource designed for teens to learn about healthy relationships and understand the nature of their relationship they are in. It provides many resources, including legal help, and resources specifically for LGBTQ+ youth.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides support for anyone affected by abuse 24/7. Call 1-800-799-7233, text 22522, or chat via their website.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) has a national sexual assault hotline available 24/7. Call 800-656-HOPE or chat via their website.
The Victim Connect Resource Center provides confidential referrals for victims of crime 8:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. EST Monday to Friday. Call 855-4-VICTIM or chat via their website.
That’s Not Cool provides resources for understanding healthy relationships on and offline. They have resources specific for teens experiencing abuse online, including the Respect Effect app and resources for allies.