Singer Rihanna’s abuse by boyfriend Chris Brown is just one example as then 19-year-old Rihanna made her history of physical abuse at the hands of Chris Brown known to the world. Dating violence doesn’t just begin in adulthood. In most cases it starts much earlier before it develops into full-fledged violence, and in some tragic instances, death.

A 16-year-old verbally abusing and emotionally controlling his girlfriend after class might make for a less dramatic mental image than our glamorous celebrity examples, but it doesn’t deserve our attention any less. Statistics tell us that most victims of dating violence are girls between the ages of 16 and 24.

What’s more, many victims of domestic violence report having been first abused between the ages of 11 and 17. When we remain unaware that dating violence is a teen issue, we miss the very root of the problem.

Another scary fact tells us that violent behaviors within a dating relationship are occurring at earlier and earlier ages as younger and younger children start dating. One study reports that 25% of 8thand 9th graders say they’ve been victims of dating violence. That’s 1 in 4!

While any amount of abuse is too much and worthy of our attention, the fact that this many students engage in abusive relationships at such a young age should serve as a warning sign that teen dating violence is a serious issue, and we can’t ignore it.

What does teen dating violence look like?

Let’s take another look at that 16-year-old and his girlfriend. Since almost half of the reported incidents of teen dating violence occurred on school grounds, let’s imagine them in the hallway between classes. They’ve been dating for a few months now and the girlfriend has stopped wearing makeup because he doesn’t want her attracting the attention of any other guys in the school.  Her clothes have changed too. They’re more formless and cover more of her arms and legs than what she used to wear.

Her phone buzzes and the boyfriend grabs it out of her hand and reads the text message. He monitors all of her communication – phone, twitter, email . The message is from one of her friends asking her if she wants to do something after school. The boyfriend tells her she can’t go out with her friends because she’s dating him now. He doesn’t want to share her with anyone else. This isolation has been going on for a while now and where she once felt flattered that he paid so much attention to her, she’s now starting to feel smothered.

Teen abusers tend to start small, but dating violence doesn’t have to manifest in physical violence to emotionally damage a victim.  And this kind of emotional abuse tends to escalate. If we fast-forward through that hallway a few years, or possibly only a few more months, the smothering might escalate into verbal abuse, with the boyfriend telling her how stupid and worthless she is – that she’s lucky that he’s dating her because no one else would, and that might further escalate to grabbing her arm hard enough to leave bruises, or hitting her.

While involved in a relationship, it’s all too common for a teen girl to excuse a boyfriend’s behavior, especially in the early stages. She may not see the smother stage as abuse, especially if she’s unaware of what a healthy relationship looks like. Sometimes it takes an outside party, a friend or family member to point out that their dynamic is not healthy. It’s also all too common for victims of abuse to return to their abusers even if the relationship was broken off. Once again Rihanna comes to mind. They believe the abuser’s apology and put themselves back into a dangerous relationship.

When we know that dating violence is a teen issue and the realities surrounding it, we can educate students, teaching them what a healthy relationship looks like, we give them the tools to recognize the warning signs and get help early in an unhealthy relationship. The best way to prevent teens from becoming trapped in an unhealthy relationship is to show them how to have healthy relationships.

Healthy boundaries

The best way for teens to avoid becoming victims of dating violence is to set up healthy boundaries in their relationships from the beginning. When they determine the lines they will not cross with a boyfriend or girlfriend, they are able to protect themselves from a relationship that gets out of their control.

Here are 4 healthy boundaries that every teen should set for their dating relationships:

  1. Never be alone in a house with your boyfriend/girlfriend.
  2. Discuss your boundaries and expectations early in the relationship. Determine and communicate the lines you will not cross physically. Remember, sexual intercourse significantly increases the odds that a teen will experience violence within a relationship.
  3. Learn and practice refusal skills. How will you respond if your boyfriend or girlfriend says, “If you loved me, then you would to ____ with/for me,” or “Everybody else is doing it. There’s nothing to worry about”? Know what your answer will be in advance so that you aren’t caught unprepared.
  4. Know the early warning signals for dating violence: Does your boyfriend try to control what you wear? Does he constantly check up on your via text, phone or in person? Does he try to isolate and separate you from your family and friends? Does he tell you something or give you something and say “This is our secret”? These are all emotional grooming techniques that can lead to dating violence.

With an awareness that dating violence is a teen issue, we can better protect those at risk. Learn more about Teen Dating Violence and book a program with one of our speakers to talk to your students about how to build healthy relationships.