Health and Wellness

Why Don’t Teens “See” Dating Abuse?

Relationships can be exciting and all consuming, but they can also be dangerous. One in three American teens experience some form of dating abuse. Yet two-thirds never tell anyone.

Sometimes it is because they don’t know who to tell or how to talk about it. But sometimes it’s because they simply don’t recognize the behavior as abusive.

Be Smart. Be Well. and can help parents and teens learn to recognize the signs of dating abuse. is a national organization that provides dating-abuse prevention programs and resources to teens.

Teens may have a particularly hard time identifying abusive behavior because they don’t have as much relationship experience, said Cristina Escobar, director of Loveisrespect.

If teens are educated to recognize abusive behavior, whether in their own relationships or a friend’s, they will be better equipped to seek help or aid a friend.

Be Smart. Be Well.’s new video quiz Teen Dating: What’s Really Going On? presents five different relationship situations. Teens can watch the short video clips and then answer multiple choice questions about what they think is going on in the relationship.

The examples in the video may help teens understand what dating abuse can look like. The quiz answers can help show them what they should do if they see or experience dating abuse.

When Does Dating Abuse Start?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, girls and young women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence. For many girls, dating abuse starts at an even younger age.

“When we think about domestic violence, we usually envision a grownup, but the truth is the typical domestic victim experiences her first abuse at age 15,” Escobar explained.

In fact, victims ages 13 to 16 made up the biggest percentage of calls to the National Dating Abuse Helpline in 2012.


Chart courtesy of the National Dating Abuse Helpline

Children as young as 11 years old report that dating abuse is prevalent among their peers, according to the Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Survey by Fifth & Pacific Companies, Inc. and the National Dating Abuse Helpline.

The survey found that more than 60 percent of children between 11 and 14 who have been in a relationship know friends who have been verbally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. One in five knows friends and peers who have been struck in anger (kicked, hit, slapped or punched) by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Who Is at Risk for Dating Abuse?
Though girls make up the majority of dating abuse victims, the issue affects boys, too.

“There’s a common misconception that only girls can be abused and only boys can be abusive,” Escobar said. “There’s no combination of people that this doesn’t happen to — girl or boy, straight or same sex. It’s an issue that affects everyone.”

Some teen victims — as well as parents of teens — may struggle with the idea that a seemingly well-adjusted and popular teen is capable of abuse, Escobar said.

Why Teens Sometimes Don’t “See” Abuse
Sometimes, a narrow definition of abuse prevents teens from recognizing abusive behavior, Escobar said. For example, it may be harder to identify verbal or emotional abuse because the damage is not as obvious.

In fact, dating violence often starts with teasing and name-calling. And extreme jealousy is a type of emotional abuse. And these are red flags for future physical abuse.

“Jealousy is not a sign of love, and it’s not a healthy way to show you care about your partner,” Escobar said.

Controlling behavior is another form of abuse that is often misinterpreted by inexperienced teens. While it’s common for someone in a new relationship to want to spend all of his or her time with the new partner, there is a difference between togetherness and isolation.

“If someone is not wanting you to be involved in activities you used to be involved in, or saying they don’t like your friends or family, or subtly pressuring you to stay away from those things, those are red flags,” Escobar said.

Red Flags
According to Loveisrespect, other warning signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Putting you down or otherwise making you feel bad about yourself
  • Name-calling
  • Playing mind games
  • Humiliating you
  • Making you feel guilty

These types of abuse can be hard to figure out for someone new to dating. Escobar offers this general guidance:

“Abusive relationships are based on power and control. Healthy relationships are based on equality and respect. When you think about your or your friend’s relationship, ask yourself, 'what’s really going on there? Is it two people who both like each other and have fun together? Or is it a relationship where one person is trying to show they’re better than the other or control the other one or hurt the other in some way?'”

How to Help
If a teen sees what might be unhealthy behavior in a friend’s relationship, it is important to speak up, but also be careful, Escobar cautioned.

“If you come in as a friend and say, 'you have to do this and do that,' you’re not really giving them any choices,” Escobar said. “Tell your friend you’re worried something doesn’t seem right and you’re always there to talk to them, but you also respect their decisions.”

Make sure your friend knows help is available through the National Dating Abuse Helpline, a 24-hour, confidential support line designed for teens and young adults. The Helpline offers one-on-one support, information and resources. Teens can text “loveis” to 22522, call 866-331-9474 or chat online at

For more information and resources on healthy relationships and abuse warning signs, visit Be Smart. Be Well. and

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