The Kids Ain’t Alright: Shining the light on teen dating violence
February 23rd, 2021
by. Kaylee Cross, RISE Intern
Teen dating violence (TDV) is far too common in this country to turn a blind eye. With rates staggeringly high in the K-12 education system, this blog article exposes trends, lack of awareness, and the shyness of difficult conversations between adults and children. The purpose of this blog post is to shine a light on the subject matter often swept under the rug and put off until college when it is too late. By illustrating statistics and compiling resources, this article will offer contemporary solutions and relevant information on how to start the conversation at an early age, call to action the education system, policymakers, and parents as well as providing teens the confidence to speak up about issues that directly affect them.
What’s the issue?
Adolescence is characterized by many things, including sexual growth, autonomy, feeling invincible, and, arguably most significant, the emergence of romantic relationships. Psychologists find that these foundational relationships play critical roles in social development as they provide a context for learning intimacy skills as well as for developing identity and autonomy (Connolly & McIsaac, 2009).
Childhood innocence is held in high regard in America; we protect it at all costs. It seems too often our society turns a blind eye to serious issues that affect our youth and only starts to concern ourselves when those issues create bigger problems around the 18-24 year old demographic. Dating violence and interpersonal violence, defined by the CDC as intimate violence between two people that range from physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse and stalking, can occur at any age (CDC, 2020). With the exponential increase of usage and reliance on social media, cyber dating violence is also adding to the problem.
It has been found that experiencing abuse in early romantic relationships is associated with serious detriments to mental health and linked with experiencing further relationship abuse across the lifespan (Reed, Tolman & Ward, 2017).
America is facing an epidemic: teen dating violence. Starting difficult conversations between parents and children, educating teens earlier, providing resources and safe places may decrease the ever-increasing rates of teen dating violence (TDV).
How prevalent is it?
Teen dating violence is all too common in the US as millions of adolescents become victims every year. Statistics reveal that these types of dating violence are becoming more prevalent at earlier ages, starting around the age of 12-13 (Niolon et al., 2019). A USA News article describes that roughly 2,200 minors are arrested for rape each year, and 9,200 more for other sex offenses. It is known that most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported and, of the 32 percent that is reported to the police, only 2 percent lead to a felony conviction, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (Sneed, 2015). The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey revealed that 1 in 11 female and approximately 1 in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year (CDC, 2020). Within this demographic, the victim-perpetrator rates varied across age groups, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and ethnicities. One study found higher rates of sexual dating violence in samples of older teens, physical dating violence of cultural minority girls, and disadvantaged neighborhoods (Wincentak, Connolley and Card, 2017). Out of a sample of 5,647 students grades 7-12, 80.3% reported experiencing some type of cyber, physical or psychological abuse and/or sexual coercion (Statista, 2013).
The National Judicial Education Program wrote, “Teens use electronic communication to abuse their partners in numerous ways, including establishing the relationship, monitoring a partner’s whereabouts, expressing aggression toward a partner, and reestablishing contact after a violent episode” in the article The Use of Social Media In Teen Dating Violence (NJEP, 2016). This publication exposed the dangers and malicious use of technology as another form of dating violence prevalent among teens, and how it has become yet another way to “exercise pervasive coercive control over [their] victims”. There are too much data and studies producing staggering and heart-wrenching statistics to ignore the problem any longer.
Our Western society believes parenting is private and each family should raise their children however they wish. This often means parents go into a very complex field with no knowledge or skills to handle difficult situations. The cliche of the birds and the bees talk (often about sex) is the only meaningful and significant “talk” between adult and adolescent that our society encourages, leaving out how to build healthy relationships, setting boundaries, exploring sexuality, etc. Western societies tend to shame parents who are so open about taboo topics with their kids, telling them that children shouldn’t think about these things or be exposed to risque ideas. Doctor of Human Sexuality, sex & relationship expert Emily Morse writes in her article of sex education, “The more we learn about ourselves as a species, the more we have to teach our youth. So there’s no one correct and complete definition of Comprehensive Sexuality Education. The idea is to extend the teaching beyond the limiting themes of abstinence and anatomy. It’s to empower and encourage young and/or sexually inexperienced people to learn about components of sex that have been traditionally labeled as “taboo” or in some cases, irreligious” (Morse, 2020). Her publication perfectly sums up the complicated relationship we have between educating our youth, classic “sex ed” and taking an active role in removing the taboo nature of basic human principles.
By excusing behaviors such as harassing another student on the playground, following them around, or even trying to touch them when they don’t want it, children think these inappropriate relationships are okay and then bring them into middle and high school where the problem surfaces and increases. During the most turbulent time of life defined by heightened hormones, risk-taking, and impulsivity, adolescents are starting to experience attraction and stimulation, but no idea what to do with it. If all the tools and knowledge we give teens is how to avoid sexual situations or to put a condom on a banana, we can only expect the impulsive inexperienced person to fail. Teen dating violence has progressed due to boys being permitted to be aggressive, violent, overly sexual and that they hold power over girls and other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+, lower socioeconomic status, and people of color. Our long-standing history of giving boys who are clearly showing maladaptive behaviors and aggressive tendencies excuses such as “boys will be boys'' is one of the most basic building blocks of this complicated issue. Entertainment industries then exploit this phenomenon and romanticize it by making the main character a charming sports player who treats girls poorly but ends up coercing her back into a relationship and calling it love. These cheesy romantic comedies make the idea of a guy following a girl home or fighting another guy for her attention desirable, when in fact they are what is wrong with how we educate our youth.
What has been done nationally?
The Teach Safe Relationship Act of 2015 is a bill passed by the senate giving grants to all elementary and secondary education agencies for professional development to school administrators, teachers, and staff in safe relationship behavior education; and educational programming and curricula for students regarding safe relationship behavior (S.355 - 114th Congress, 2015). This bill focused on promoting “safe relationships and teaches students to recognize and prevent coercion, violence, or abuse, including physical and emotional relationship abuse” (S.355 - 114th Congress, 2015). However, there was not a thorough follow-up with this bill and this was one of merely a few legislative attempts to uncover and destroy teen dating violence. We need to advocate and push for many more extensive and rigorous bills such as the Teach Safe Relationship Act to equip teachers and parents with the tools and education to eradicate teen dating violence. The existing legislation in place is blurry and often shifts responsibility for lack of funding, education, and readiness to tackle intimate problems such as talking about sex and relationships with children.
How can we help?
In the USA News article “High Schools and Middle Schools are Failing Victims of Sexual Assault”, an incredibly powerful title for a very serious story, Tierney Sneed reports how many authority figures in children's lives care about this issue but don’t know what to do. According to Break the Cycle, an organization that focuses on teen dating violence, “more than 80 percent of high school guidance counselors say they feel ill-equipped to deal with reports of abuse on their campuses'' and that secondary school educators are unsure and ill-trained when it comes to handling allegations that one student has assaulted another (Sneed, 2015). It is wrong to put the responsibility of treading deep waters in the hands of underfunded and untrained educators.
Parents need resources and education, just like children need to learn to read and write. There is no shame in parents admitting they need advice, nor is there shame in talking about it. Poe Center for Health Education explains that the conversation of healthy romantic relationships tends to get delayed or neglected altogether, but there are ways to break this trend. The family resource center proposes 6 steps to start the conversation with your child:
1. Define, model, and give examples of what a healthy relationship is.
2. Explain what an unhealthy relationship is.
3. Discuss digital abuse.
4. Help them define boundaries.
5. Look for signs of an unhealthy relationship and talk.
6. Ask for help when needed.
The Poe Center warns, however, “Keep in mind the best time to start these conversations is BEFORE your child is in a romantic relationship” (Poe Center, 2018).
It is uncommon to see a celebrity expose a sensitive topic, the backlash may cause permanent reputation damage. Singer-songwriter Dua Lipa broke the silence on teen dating violence and toxic masculinity in her recent song Boys Will Be Boys. She writes, “It's second nature to walk home before the sun goes down; And put your keys between your knuckles when there are boys around; Isn't it funny how we laugh it off to hide our fear; When there's nothing funny here?”, touching the surface on how girls are taught to protect themselves and boys are taught to sexualize these girls no matter how it makes them feel (Lipa, 2020). She reminds us that that cliche of “boys will be boys” is no longer funny. The kids aren't alright. They need guidance and tools to steer them in the direction of appropriate healthy relationships. If our society praises itself on protecting our young then it is time to fulfill that promise. This is a call to action.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Preventing Teen Dating Violence. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Lipa, D. (2020). Boys Will Be Boys. Future Nostalgia.
Morse, E. (2020). Comprehensive Sexuality Education. Sex with Emily. Retrieved from https://sexwithemily.com/read/.
National Judicial Education Program (NJEP). (2016). Use of Social Media in Teen Dating Violence. The Women’s Legal Defence and Education Fund, Legal Momentum. Retrieved from https://www.legalmomentum.org/library/use-social-media-teen-dating-violence
Niolon, P. H. et al. (2019). An RCT of Dating Matters: Effects on Teen Dating Violence and Relationship Behaviors. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(1), 13-23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2019.02.022
Poe Center. (2018). How to Talk with Kids About Healthy Relationships. Poe Center for Health Education. Retrieved from https://www.poehealth.org/how-to-talk-with-kids-about-healthy-relationships/.
Reed, L. A., Tolman, R. M. & Ward, L. M. (2017). Gender Matters: Experiences and Consequences of digital dating abuse victimization in adolescent dating relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 59(1), 79-89.
Sneed, T. (2015). High Schools and Middle Schools are Failing Victims of Sexual Assault. USA News & World Report.
Statista Research Development. (2013). Teenagers: Dating Violence and Abuse Victimization 2012, by Relationship Status. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/291345/teen-dating-violence-and-abuse-victimization-relationship-status/.
The Teach Safe Relationships Act, S.355. 114th of Congress. (2015). https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/355?overview=closed
Wincentak, K., Connolly, J., & Card, N. (2017). Teen dating violence: A meta-analytic review of prevalence rates. Psychology of Violence, 7(2), 224–241. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040194