What is Dating Abuse?

Dating abuse is a pattern of coercive and manipulative behaviors used by one dating partner to gain and maintain power and control over the other dating partner. The abusive behavior used by one partner against the other is “successful” because relationships are built often on first-time feelings of love and commonly, a strong intensity that characterizes teen and tween relationships.  This pattern of behaviors can include:

  • Isolation
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Technology or Digital abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Threats

How Prevalent is Dating Abuse?

Teen dating abuse can affect anyone – in relationships of all ages, regardless of race, religion, culture, sexuality, or socioeconomic status – and both males and females can be victims or abusive partners in opposite-sex or same-sex relationships.

With more than one in three 11-12 year olds (37%) saying they have been in a relationship, dating, and often dating abuse, starts early.  Nearly half of all tweens in relationships (47%) say they know friends who have been verbally abused (called stupid, worthless, ugly, etc.) by a boyfriend/girlfriend and more than a third (36%) know friends and peers their age who have been pressured by a boyfriend/girlfriend to do things they didn’t want to do. [1]  Eighty percent (80%) of teens know someone whose boyfriend/girlfriend has used controlling behavior and 47% of them have been victimized personally by controlling behaviors from a boyfriend or girlfriend. [2]

While teen dating abuse is quite prevalent, a recent study shows us that parents are unaware: nearly two-thirds (63%) of parents whose children have been in a dating relationship say dating violence and abuse have not been a problem for their teens.  And, 67% of the parents of the 47% of teens who reported experiencing controlling behaviors by a partner had no idea that this was occurring to their teen. [3]

What Signs Can I Look For?

There ARE warning signs you can look for. The most important things to look for are significant changes in behavior, such as:

  • Changes in the amount of time spent with friends, family, spiritual, social, or cultural groups – have they stopped seeing people other than their person they are dating?
  • Changes in their schoolwork – Are their grades slipping?  Are they cutting class or school?
  • Changes in the amount they share with you about their life and especially about the person they are dating – are they increasingly withdrawn, irritable, angry?
  • Changes or increases in cell phone usage. Are they anxious if they cannot respond to a call, text, or email from their partner right away? Are there calls or texts coming in at all times of the night?
  • Changes in the clothing they wear
  • Changes in their relationships with adults of influence

Think of these as some general things to consider.  You know the teen or tween in your life.  What makes all this more confusing is the list of considerations are typical behaviors for adolescence in general, so look for significant changes and patterns.

If a Teen or Tween is Being Abused

While teens are peer-focused, parents can and do play an essential role for those experiencing abuse.  Giving support, resources, and a voice that says, “It’s ok, I love you and you did nothing wrong” is all so important.  Don’t wait for the teen or tween to come to you – let them know that you have noticed things have changed with them, that you think it is not okay if their partner talks to them in a certain way or makes them do things they don’t want to do, or that you care about and are concerned for them.

Although we want to help teens and tweens in our lives, forcing them to end their relationships, something that would seem to “solve” the problem, most often backfires on parents and can cause great harm to the teen or tween being abused.  If teens or tweens feel they have to end a relationship to please their parents or caregivers, they often will stop talking about what’s happening or lie, which can increase risks to their safety and harm the parent-child relationship.

How MSP Can Help

The MSPs Domestic Violence Education and Prevention (DVEP) Program provides free counseling for teens who are currently or who have experienced dating abuse in the past.  Our DVEP Program Manager works with teens to provide support, information, resources, options, and safety planning assistance.

It can be incredibly hard to see your child being hurt by someone they are dating.  The DVEP Program is here for you, too.  We provide support, information, referrals and other resources for parents when needed.

DVEP also provides extensive educational programs to help prevent dating abuse.  For more information on the array of educational programming we offer, please see our Youth Education Services page for more information.

For more information on all of DVEP’s programs, or to request counseling for yourself or a teen, please contact Brintha Jeyalingam, our Director of Community Education and Prevention email hidden; JavaScript is required or 914-358-0333.  You may also call our 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-298-SAFE (7233).

[1] Liz Claiborne foundation, Tween/Teen Dating Relationships survey, 2008.
[2] Liz Claiborne foundation study, Troubled Economy Linked to High Levels of Teen Dating Violence & Abuse Survey, 2009.
[3] Liz Claiborne foundation study, Troubled Economy Linked to High Levels of Teen Dating Violence & Abuse Survey, 2009.