How to Identify and Intervene in Teen Dating Violence
Millions of high school students experience teen dating violence (TDV), but many teens do not report abuse. Prevention efforts and interventions on a school-wide and classroom level can help stop dating conflicts and sexual harassment before they occur. And school counselors can play an invaluable role by providing support and resources for their students who may be in situations where they are being harmed.
What Is Teen Dating Violence?
Teen dating violence is a form of intimate partner violence that occurs between teenagers of all genders who engage in romantic relationships. TDV can take place in person, over the phone or online, similar to bullying.
The two main types of TDV include:
Physical dating violence: Being purposefully, physically hurt by someone they were dating or going out with. Acts of physical violence include being hit, slammed into something or injured with an object or weapon.
Sexual dating violence: Being forced to perform sexual acts by someone they were dating or going out with. Acts of sexual violence include rape and unwanted kissing and touching.
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System collected data about physical and sexual dating violence among high school students in relationships in 2017. Overall, about 8% of high school students in relationships experienced physical dating violence, while the overall prevalence of having experienced sexual violence ranged from 7.7% to 18.5%. Female students and lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students were among the groups most at risk.
TDV, or even the threat of violence, can significantly alter a person’s feelings of safety and self-security, even when the threats aren’t visible to peers or caregivers.
The CDC notes that less visible forms of TDV include:
Psychological aggression: Also referred to as emotional abuse, this form of TDV involves using verbal and non-verbal communication to intimidate, manipulate or scare another person.
Stalking: This is a systematic pattern of repeatedly following, intimidating or contacting a person with unwanted attention, typically for the purpose of harming or manipulating them.
For all types of intimate partner violence, the CDC estimates that 26% of women and 15% of men who experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner first did so before the age of 18.
What Are the Signs of Teen Dating Violence?
Alarming behaviors can begin between the ages of 12 and 18. Some relationship red flags that could be a cause for concern include:
- Breaking up and getting back together repeatedly over short periods of time
- Frequently fighting or arguing in public, in private or online
- Excessive jealousy and insecurity from either partner
- Invasions of privacy such as reading through text messages, social media accounts or personal devices
- Controlling and threatening behavior
- Taunting or teasing in a bullying mannerat school or via social media accounts
- Consistent monitoring or checking in on each other’s locations, friends or plans
- Restricting time spent with friends or extracurricular activities
- Temperamental or explosive discussions, including false accusations
These types of behaviors may be modeled to teens or adolescents by their parents, characters in entertainment media or even peers at school. It’s important for school staff to monitor this behavior, while also looking for risk factors that make students more likely to experience intimate partner violence, which can include:
- Significant age differences between partners
- Decreased attachment to caregivers or parents
- Increased association with peers who exhibit violent or risky behaviors such as substance use
- Cohabitation with an intimate partner before the age of 18
- Engaging in sexual activity before the age of 16
- Exposure to traumatic life events or domestic violence at home
Addressing TDV as early as possible can help promote healthy relationships in adulthood and prevent negative outcomes.
What Are the Consequences of Teen Dating Violence?
The CDC reports that teen dating violence has been shown to produce the following long-term and long-lasting effects for those who experience it:
- Poor school performance
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Development of eating disorders
- Suicidal intent
Adolescents who experience TDV during high school are at a higher risk for mistreatment during college. Intimate partner violence is also associated with the development and worsening of mental health conditions that include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, substance abuse and severe and persistent mental illnesses.
How Can Schools Address Teen Dating Violence and Support Students?
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (PDF, 589 KB), sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment. Any school that receives federal funding must respond to all instances of TDV or risk being subject to lawsuits.
Schools become liable for the teen dating conflict incidents when the:
- Student has been sexually harassed.
- School has knowledge of the harassment.
- Harassment was severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.
- Harassment causes students to be deprived of access to educational opportunities.
- School is deliberately indifferent to the harassment.
The Office for Civil Rights requires by law that school administrators — including school counselors — respond and report in an effective manner, immediately upon knowledge of an incident. Some states have mandatory reporting laws that require the involvement of law enforcement or child protection agencies.
Regardless of legal obligations, documentation should always be prompt, thorough and impartial.
For reported incidences, a school counselor’s role involves working with administration to minimize additional trauma from investigation. While every student has a right to confidentiality, a school counselor must weigh the request of confidentiality with the seriousness of the allegation, age of the student, number of other complaints against the harasser and the alleged harasser’s right to receive this information. If there is an insistence on confidentiality, the school could seek other steps to limit the effects of the harassment and seek preventive measures.
According to a model policy created for schools in the District of Columbia by Break the Cycle, some ways that school counselors and other staff can protect the confidentiality of students (PDF, 621 KB) include:
- Keeping files regarding incidents and reports in a locked file cabinet at all times.
- Password protecting any computer software that is utilized to record students’ reports.
- Clearly articulating the limits of confidentiality to students.
- Restricting discussion about students’ status as victims or perpetrators in public areas.
- Assisting students with developing plans for disclosure to parents.
How Can School Counselors Work With Students on Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Intervention?
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a national assessment of school counselors’ perceptions on teen dating violence. School counselors identified themselves as the main school-associated personnel to assist survivors of TDV. Their roles include identifying and supporting students who have experienced TDV, developing and implementing appropriate dating abuse policies, training other personnel and encouraging students to report.
But as Break the Cycle points out, many students do not seek help because of mistrust of adults and professionals. In addition to reassuring students about confidentiality through the measures outlined above, school counselors should explain to students how they can help. The D.C. model policy highlights the ways school counselors and other staff can assist students:
- Inform students of their rights under the school policy.
- Work with students to request specific accommodations, such as a change in class schedule or a school transfer, to ensure that they continue to have access to education.
- Help students navigate requests for disciplinary action.
- Create a safety plan (PDF, 940 KB) with students to keep them safe both on and off school grounds.
- Assist with enforcement of protection orders.
- Ensure students are aware of on-campus resources and connect them to appropriate off-campus services.
- Continue to advocate for students throughout their academic careers.
Navigating a sensitive conversation is an important part of an effective intervention and can establish a trusted relationship with a student when they’re ready to seek help.
Tips for School Staff Intervening With Teen Dating Violence
- Reflect on personal values regarding relationships and consider personal biases that might not be relevant to the student’s experience.
- Establish a safe space to talk, so the student knows they’re entitled to confidentiality.
- Offer to assist with a problem instead of trying to solve it for the student.
- Use age-appropriate and relevant examples of healthy relationship dynamics.
- Give undivided attention and actively listen to the student’s concerns.
- Remind the student they are not alone and offer additional resources for help.
Promoting healthy partnerships can also play an important role in TDV prevention. The Dating Matters training module created by the CDC encourages schools counselors and staff to highlight characteristics of strong, safe relationships (PDF, 476 KB).
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
- Partners are free to be individuals and enjoy activities and interests apart.
- There is a mutual respect for boundaries and privacy.
- Partners listen to each other and understand each other’s values.
- Interactions are rooted in respect and encouragement.
- There is an understanding that disagreements will happen.
- Partners express themselves honestly and respectfully.
- Both partners feel equal in the relationship.
- The relationship is fun and enjoyable.
School counselors and other staff can also model healthy behaviors when it comes to handling emotions and interacting with peers or students. Dating Matters module encourages school staff to consider promoting the following strategies for emotional self-regulation:
Positive self-talk: Counter negative thoughts by finding positive spins that allow you to control your internal conversation.
Deep breathing: Slow, deep breathing is a calming strategy that can help you relax when your emotions are heightened.
Mindfulness: Quiet your mind by paying attention to what is happening in the moment.
By actively pursuing new strategies to help students recover from traumatic relationships and prevent them from falling into new ones, counselors and other school staff can create a safer, more nurturing school environment that lets every student succeed. Peers can also intervene and protect students who may be victimized by a partner. Break the Cycle offers a number of steps to help friends who say they are being abused.
How to Support a Friend Experiencing Teen Dating Violence
Initiate a conversation by sharing that you may have noticed concerning behaviors. Ask them how these behaviors make them feel.
Offer support without judgement. Your friends may not recognize behaviors as problematic. Some supportive phrases include:
- What do you need?
- Thank you for trusting me.
- You deserve to be treated with respect.
- It’s not your fault.
Keep the door open for them to ask for help, even if they don’t initially respond to your concerns how you would like them to.
Get help from professionals, like school counselors, if you feel your friend is in danger.
And for students who want to move beyond the walls of their schools, Break the Cycle has created a Dating Abuse Advocacy Toolkit (PDF, 1.2 MB) to help young people affect change on this issue at the state and national level.
Resources for Training and Continuing Education for School Staff
- Break the Cycle: It’s Time to Start the Conversation (PDF, 776 KB): A conversation guide for adults to speak with youth about dating violence through the development of skills to create positive and healthy relationships with peers and dating partners.
- Dating Matters: Understanding Teen Dating Violence Prevention: A free online course for educators, school personnel, youth mentors and others who seek to improve teen health. Highlighted within the course is a definition of teen dating violence and how to prevent it, interactive exercises and information from experts.
- Futures Without Violence: An initiative to help develop healthy relationship education and prevent teen dating violence and abuse beginning at age 11.
- Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence: Evidence-Based & Practice-Informed Prevention Approaches to Adolescent Dating Abuse,
- Sexual Assault and Stalking (PDF, 451 KB): A list of different healthy relationship curriculum and approaches to teen dating abuse, sexual assault, and stalking.
- National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments: Preventing, Assessing, and Intervening in Teenage Dating Abuse: A toolkit that explores healthy and unhealthy relationships, strategies for assessment of dating abuse, guidance on policies for schools and resources for key support staff.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Understanding Teen Dating Violence Fact Sheet (PDF, 191 KB)*: A teen dating fact sheet filled with definitions of different types of abuse, how the CDC approaches prevention, and resources for more information.
- The Urban Institute: Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying (PDF, 4.1 MB): A comprehensive research project on the types of violence and abuse experiences that youth encounter through use of technology and its impact on their lives.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in school counseling, read more about how to become a school counselor and visit our list of master's in school counseling online programs to find the right school for you.
Percentage of High School Students in Relationships who Experienced Teen Dating Violence in 2017
|Demographic||Percentage Who Experienced Physical Violence||Percentage Who Experienced Sexual Violence|
|All Students in Relationships||8.0||6.9|
|Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual||17.2||15.8|
Source: Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W.A., Shanklin, S.L., Flint, K.H., Queen, B., … Ethier, K.A. (2018, June 15). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 67(8), 1–114.