Making belittling comments underneath your date's Instagram posts. Sharing risqué selfies with your classmates. Slapping. Sexual assault. Manipulating your partner to get your way, or obsessively tracking your ex's social media and sending menacing messages. When young people are involved, this is all considered adolescent relationship abuse — but what is that, exactly?
According to a recent research brief published by Pediatrics, the journal for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), ARA affects 20% to 30% of teens in the United States and can have significant repercussions on a young person's physical and mental health. A 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found that, among 1 in 12 U.S. high school students who had dated in the previous year, at least 1 in 12 reported experiencing physical dating violence. Further, 1 in 12 also experienced sexual dating violence. Female and LGBTQ youths had higher risks of experiencing physical and sexual violence.
But many parents may be unaware of the term "adolescent relationship abuse" or what it entails — not to mention how to protect their children and what red flags to look for as they embark on their first relationships. Here's what experts say and why this is a serious issue that can strike even before the teen years.
What is adolescent relationship abuse?
The term adolescent relationship abuse started being used by experts about 15 years ago and is becoming more mainstream these days, according to Emily Rothman, a social epidemiologist and a professor at Boston University. Previously "teen dating violence" was the common nomenclature, and while Rothman tells Yahoo Life that it's still OK to use that term, there are reasons the newer phrase is more accepted.
For starters, teen refers only to youth ages 13 to 19, while adolescent covers those from the preteen stage into early adulthood. Dating is also a limited term, especially in the eyes of young people.
“Dating is a little less useful than the word relationship,” Rothman says. “They may say ‘we’re not dating, we’re talking’ or 'hanging out' or 'hooking up.'”
The word "abuse," meanwhile includes physical and sexual violence, but also covers other harmful actions including mental abuse, psychological abuse, cyber-stalking and more.
What experts and research say about ARA
“This is more prevalent than people would think,” Dennis Reidy, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor at Georgia State University, tells Yahoo Life. “We have estimates from the CDC that say 10% to 18% of high school kids will experience some type of physical abuse, and about 10% of high school kids will experience some type of sexual violence from a dating partner.”
He warns that attention needs to be given to ARA because the consequences can linger for decades and can be passed down to future generations.
“The effects are pretty wide-reaching and [include] ones you wouldn’t think about,” says Reidy. “The impact is potentially lifelong. There’s an increased likelihood victims would be teen mothers. They are more likely to engage in sexual risky behavior like multiple sexual partners or sex without condoms. If you’ve been the victim of sexual violence you may not have the confidence to refuse sex; you may feel hesitant and scared to say no.”
Here's what studies have found about ARA, from its negative effects to the importance of early intervention.
Some adolescents are at a greater risk than others. According to the CDC, female students experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence than male students. Students who identified as LGBTQ or were uncertain about their gender identity also experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence compared with those who identified as heterosexual.
These behaviors lead to everlasting, unhealthy relationships. Studies show abuse in adolescent relationships are a precursor for future problems. It can lead to depression, anxiety and unhealthy behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse, as well as antisocial behaviors including lying, theft and bullying. Victims of ARA are also more likely to experience suicidal ideation.
Abusive behaviors peak in early adulthood. Studies show it’s imperative to begin intervention early since intimate partner violence seems to peak in early adulthood. Healthy relationship behaviors need to be taught before teens form harmful habits.
Modeling healthy relationships can help. Studies show modeling healthy relationships — from interacting with romantic partners and friends to restaurant staff and strangers — will help teach youth how to behave appropriately with others.
Students who receive intervention are less likely to perpetrate physical violence. A recent study published in Pediatrics determined that a classroom-based healthy relationships curriculum delivered to seventh graders successfully reduced physical ARA perpetration a year later.
What are the red flags?
Rothman notes that adolescents are more likely to be both the aggressor and the victim in a relationship, switching between the two roles. It’s different from adult relationships, in which one person is more likely to assume just one role.
“What that means is young people are still formulating their relationship styles and behaviors,” Rothman says. “Somebody may do something controlling and unhealthy and aggressive one day, but a few days later it could be their partner who does some of these unhealthy behaviors.”
Because of this, Rothman warns parents be on alert for both sides of the coin.
Here are signs for parents to look for:
Spends all their time with their partner rather than their friends
Seems withdrawn and/or depressed
If one person is making all of the decisions all of the time
If one partner demands to know where the other is at all times and insists on knowing passwords to the other's social media accounts, email accounts and smartphone
If one partner takes on an extreme caretaker role thinking they are responsible for the other person’s mental health
If one partner mentions they are being pressured into sending nude photos or sharing private information without consent
How can parents help their kids?
Jeff Temple is the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, as well as a licensed psychologist and the founding director of the Center for Violence Prevention. He says both parents and educators need to be involved in discussions about abuse.
“Kids start to think about dating around sixth or seventh grade, and it’s extremely important to have an ongoing conversation about relationships,” Temple tells Yahoo Life. “It’s not a one-and-done birds-and-bees talk. It starts with how they treat the waiter and flight attendant, siblings and friends, and making sure they treat people with respect.”
There also are ways to discuss consent in age-appropriate ways and show that choices are always available in relationships of any kind. One example Rothman cites is not forcing a child to greet their grandma with a kiss when she comes to visit. Letting them choose whether they're more comfortable with a high five (or no contact at all) reinforces the message that they have autonomy over their body.
Research has found that modeling healthy relationships is key, but Reidy acknowledges that this may not be so easy for every family.
“Some people don’t realize swearing and cursing at your partner is not a good thing,” Reidy says. “Even healthy adults are still trying to figure this out. I’ve been married for 10ish years and I’m still learning how to be a better husband, but that’s the reality.”
Children often see their parents argue, but what they don’t see is their parents making up. Experts say that is an important skill to teach children: letting them hear "I’m sorry" and "I will learn and do better."
If a parent is concerned about their child's relationship, Rothman recommends proceeding carefully.
“As a parent you wish the answer was to dive in and demand your child ends the relationship, but that’s not the most effective way to help,” she says. “It’s actually demonstrating the demanding, unhealthy behavior from the relationship they are in.”
Instead, she says to stay noninvasive, gentle and respectful.
“Try saying, ‘I noticed you were crying and it seems so-and-so makes you feel sad, but everyone deserves to feel safe and happy,’” Redman says. “They’ll come back and say, ‘No, no, that’s not true.’ Tell them they seem overwhelmed and stressed and suggest [that] taking a break from their partner might be good, or talking to a friend can be helpful.”
“This biggest thing is listen to your kids, especially adolescents," Temple adds. “It’s a tricky age. You’re not sure if you should treat them like kids or adults. The most important thing we can do as parents is model good behavior and love them no matter what. I know that sounds really Hallmark-y, but it’s not so complicated. Just listen.”
For anyone affected by abuse and needing support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or if you're unable to speak safely, you can log on to thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.