By Hugh C. McBride

As the continued relevance of Romeo & Juliet indicates, angst-infused teen relationships are neither new nor in any danger of disappearing from the face of the Earth. But while most youth romances result in little more than wistful memories and reams of regrettable poetry, a disturbing number of young people leave their first love affairs with literal bruises and long-lasting psychological scars.

Several studies have documented the degree to which physical violence and emotional abuse have infiltrated adolescent and teen relationships. For example, the website Love is Not Abuse (which is sponsored by Liz Claiborne Inc.) features the following statistics about dating violence among young people:

  • Sixty-two percent of tweens (ages 11 to 14) who have been in a relationship say they know friends who have been verbally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • One in three teenagers reports knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.
  • Thirteen percent of teenage girls who said they have been in a relationship report being physically hurt or hit.
  • About 25 percent of teen girls who have been in relationships reveal they have been pressured to perform oral sex or engage in intercourse.
  • About eight of 10 girls who have been physically abused in their intimate relationships continue to date their abuser. 

A Widespread Problem

Girls and young women are at greatest risk for becoming victims of relationship violence, but as the teen advocacy organization Do Something reports, no one who enters into a romantic relationship should consider themselves immune from the risk of physical and emotional violence.

And thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is easier than ever before for perpetrators to abuse and harass their partners:

  • Twenty percent of young men in relationships suffer from physical injuries inflicted by their partners. These injuries can range from minor cuts and scratches to bruises, lesions and broken bones.
  • A study of gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents revealed that young people who are involved in same-sex dating are just as likely to experience dating violence as are youths who date members of the opposite sex.
  • Twenty-five percent of teens in a relationship report having been called names, harassed or put down by their partner through cell phones and texting.

As with adults, many teens who are experiencing relationship violence would like to get away from their abuser, but they are precluded from doing so by confusion, fear or shame. Others, unfortunately, have been convinced that they somehow deserve the ill treatment they are receiving, and see the continued abuse as a sign that they have not yet become worthy of their partner’s love.

But among young people, a third group also exists — those who have had little or no experience with a healthy, non-abusive relationship, and who, as a result, believe that physical violence and emotional harassment are normal parts of the process.

The Effects of Relationship Abuse

Regardless of the reasons why a teenager has become involved with an abusive partner, the effects of the experience can be pervasive and devastating. Relationship violence and dating abuse have been associated with myriad physical, social and emotional repercussions, including the following:

Recognizing Relationship Violence

In the absence of hard evidence (such as witnessing an Instance of physical violence) it can be difficult to determine if a young person is being abused by a romantic partner. However, almost every abusive relationship involves symptoms that can be observed by family members or friends.

According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, answering “yes” to the following questions may indicate that an adolescent, tween or teen is involved in a violent or otherwise abusive relationship:

  1. Does the teen often have unexplained bruises, scratches or other injuries?
  2. Does the young person appear to be afraid of his or her boyfriend or girlfriend?
  3. Is one of the partners constantly criticizing, belittling or insulting the other one (especially in front of others)?
  4. Does the tween often apologize for or attempt to “explain away” the offending partner’s temper or violent behavior?
  5. Has the young person stopped spending time with friends, quit activities (such as sports teams or clubs) and withdrawn from family members?
  6. Has the teen’s performance in school become dramatically and inexplicably worse?
  7. Is the adolescent unwilling to make a decision without consulting with his or her partner first?
  8. Has the suspected victim become more likely to become angry or despondent over seemingly insignificant events?
  9. Does one of the partners constantly check up on the other one (either in person or via phone, text message, instant messaging or any other means)?
  10. Has the teen become involved in uncharacteristic (and unhealthy) behaviors such as substance abuse, skipping school or other criminal behaviors?

If you suspect that your child, a friend of your child or any other young person is being abused by a romantic partner, you need to get involved. If the victim is your child, intervene immediately – if necessary, contact the school, your family physician or a local domestic violence prevention organization. If the child in need is not a family member, express your observations and concerns with the victim’s parent or caregiver.

Left untreated or otherwise ignored, relationship violence can result in life-changing (and, in some cases, life-ending) effects. Take the steps today that are necessary to ensure that the young people in your life are able to enjoy the happiest and healthiest possible tomorrows.