Erin was 14 when she started to date her first boyfriend. “At first, it was exciting and new,” she said. But things started to change quickly.
“I didn’t realize that his punching holes in the walls or yelling and cursing at me, wasn’t normal,” said the now 33 year old who asked that her real name not be used.
Erin’s experience, though nearly two decades past, isn’t that different from a significant number of young people today.
A recent study from the Journal of Adolescent Health found that some 30 percent of teens have been involved in verbal abuse, such as swearing or calling each other names, said Ashley Brooks-Russell, Ph.D., M.P.H, of the Prevention Research Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the study’s authors. Another 5 percent have been involved in some form of physical violence with a partner, she added. This group, whether they are the perpetrator or victim, are more likely to be depressed, use illegal substances or experience physical signs of stress or depression, such as head, stomach or backaches, she said.
Females between the ages of 16 and 24 experience partner abuse more than any other group, said Andrew Sta. Ana, supervising attorney at Day One, a New York-based organization that works with adolescent dating violence survivors. And several past studies have found similarly high rates of abuse, with as many as one third of young people experiencing psychological abuse and one in ten having been the victim of physical violence.
“People think about teen dating violence the same way they think about adult dating violence,” said Russell. “But, in adolescence the pattern is very different and young women perpetrate as often as young men,” she added.
The study, which was published on-line in April, is the largest nationally representative sample to look at both victimization and perpetration of dating violence, said Russell. More than 2,200 10th grade students completed assessments of physical and verbal dating violence, as well as depressive symptoms, physical health complaints, and substance use.
In later adolescence, said Russell, the literature shows that dating violence declines as young people mature. However, being in an abusive relationship as a teen “is a risk factor for adult dating violence” and later in life, the abuse can become more serious, she warned.
Being a perpetrator or victim of dating violence does not mean a teen will become a victim or abuser later in life, though, said Sta. Ana. “Given the right information and space, teens can make other choices in their relationships,” he said. They are just beginning to make their way in the world, have a sense for consequences, boundaries and figuring out their sexuality, he explained.
Youth service professionals working with young people who may be involved in abusive relationships shouldn’t be afraid to have the hard conversations, said Sta. Ana, but must be well prepared to have them.
The professional should create a space for the teen to be comfortable, talk to the young person about his or her options, be non-judgmental, but also cognizant of his or her own limitations in talking about sensitive, personal topics, said Sta. Ana. Being familiar with the young person’s day-to-day life, the role technology plays in adolescent relationships and common adolescent relationship ‘lingo’ are also keys to successfully broaching these topics, he said.
“It’s no longer as simple as this person is the victim and this person is the perpetrator,” said Russell. And in some instances, professionals working with a teen may also need to offer both victim and perpetrator services, she explained.
Erin and her boyfriend were together for four years — for her entire high school experience. It’s only as an adult, she said, that she has finally realized how unhealthy the relationship was.
With the benefit of knowledge and hindsight, she noted, “I wish I had ended it sooner.”