By Natalie Spencer Gwyn, Carletta Hurt, Taqueena Quintana, LaTrenda Watson and Nikki Poindexter Ham | November 2022
Dating is a time for teens to explore relationships and the wide range of emotions involved. Unfortunately, teen dating sometimes includes violent behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen dating violence affects one in 11 females and one in 15 males, but is often overlooked.
According to the CDC, there are four types of teen dating violence:
Stalking: the repeated unwanted attention by a partner
Psychological aggression: verbal or nonverbal threats with the intent to harm someone mentally or emotionally
Sexual violence: forceful attempts by one partner to force another partner to perform sexual acts, intimate touching or nonphysical sexual acts (i.e., sexting) without the other partner’s consent
Physical violence: the use of physical acts such as hitting, kicking, etc. to harm another person
Access to instant communication presents a variety of problems. Social media outlets such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat have come under fire for promoting violent acts such as sexting. Repeated images of violence against women and men on television and in movies appear so often they have become normalized to show love and affection.
The social/emotional impact is profoundly serious and impactful, causing symptoms of anxiety and depression, use of tobacco and other drugs, antisocial behaviors and suicide. Consequently, school performance and attendance is often affected as well. According to loveisrepect.org, half of youth who have been victims of dating violence and/or rape attempt suicide. Among LGBTQ teens, dating violence persists because many are afraid to seek help for fear of being “outed” or not being believed. Many also are in their first LGBTQ relationship and may feel a loss of power or lack an established community. Groups such as a gay straight alliance club or other diversity/inclusive clubs can help LGBTQ students develop a sense of community and a place to seek help when needed.
Help teens learn how to handle conflict resolution, set boundaries and properly end a relationship. Consider incorporating mini lessons during classroom instruction, small-group sessions, lunch and learn mini groups or in-service workshops with parents/students.
Don’t normalize name calling or teasing as a developmental interaction between children and teens. This affirms that someone shows love or interest in you by harming you. Also, never consider a child or teen’s obsessive interest as “puppy love.” Developmentally, children and teens experience extraordinarily strong emotions, which can result in profoundly serious and harmful consequences if not addressed properly.
Let’s look at an example of teen dating violence: Kendall is an eighth-grader who recently moved to your school. At her previous school, Kendall was well-liked and popular. She had been dating Josh, a ninth-grader, for six months. Before Kendall moved, they would see each other at school and occasionally on the weekends. Now that Kendall is in a neighboring school district, she doesn’t see Josh as much. For the past two months they have been communicating via social media and text messages. Usually, Kendall receives a message from Josh in the morning before school and right after school on her way home. Kendall’s mother encouraged Kendall to join her school’s soccer team to meet new friends. Because practices are after school, Kendall hasn’t been able to respond to Josh quickly after school. Josh became upset after Kendall didn’t respond to his text and calls, and started sending texts such as “You’re stupid,” “I hate you,” You’re no good,” and “I’m going to break up with you.”
Kendall doesn’t know why Josh started this. His words hurt, and she cries secretly in her room. Kendall apologizes to Josh, but he accuses her of cheating or calls her names. Josh occasionally takes her cell phone and views her messages. Josh gives Kendall ultimatums, forcing her to choose between hanging out with her friends or spending time with him. When Kendall tells her soccer coach about Josh’s messages, the coach brushes it off as “a jealous boy.”
The above is a common situation. Josh repeatedly seeks to exert control and power over Kendall. He uses social media and text messaging to instantly send hurtful messages. What should you do if Kendall shows up at your office seeking help?
Make sure she is not in any immediate harm or danger.
Reassure her you are there to help and listen.
Validate her feelings and her desire to seek help.
Help her identify and communicate with her support network.
Inquire about how she currently feels about Josh. Does she want to continue with the relationship?
Help Kendall identify someone in her support network to help her have a conversation with Josh (and/or tell about Josh’s behaviors).
Determine what the best next step is and how to support her emotionally with her decision.
Follow up with Kendall and continue to support her.
Remember, you’re not in this alone. Many other helping professionals in the school can also assist children, teens and parents with teen dating violence issues and awareness. The school nurse and school social worker can serve as excellent support and follow up as needed. Teen dating violence can become a serious school safety concern; alert administrators and local authorities, keeping in mind the bounds of confidentiality, to protect the students involved and the entire school community. If there is an immediate concern for a student’s safety, report any suspected abuse to local authorities.
The CDC has great free programs for teens and parents called Dating Matters and Parenting Matters, with resources to share with students and families. Consider hosting a parent workshop in February (Teen Dating Violence and Prevention Month) or October (Domestic Violence Awareness Month). Focus on helping parents recognize warning signs of teen dating violence and ways to teach their children to navigate dating and set positive dating boundaries. The Teen Dating Violence website also has resources for educators and parents.
Natalie Spencer Gwyn, Ph.D., is core faculty, Walden University. Carletta S. Hurt is a school counselor and department chair with D.C. Public Schools, Washington, D.C. Taqueena S. Quintana, Ed.D., is the owner of Transformation Counseling Services. LaTrenda Watson, is district counseling facilitator, Alief Independent School District, Houston, Texas. Nikki Poindexter Ham, Ph.D., is the associate director clinical counseling, Bowie State University.