This article is the final part of our four-part series on teen and young-adult relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking, which often overlap in unhealthy relationships. To read our first installment on stalking, click here. Our second installment on sexual violence prevention can be found here, and our third installment on sexual assault investigations can be found here.
When you think of teens and young adults in their first romantic relationships, the image of fresh-faced kids holding hands and experiencing their first kiss often come to mind. Although this type of puppy love may actually happen for some students, the reality is much more complicated and violent for a significant percentage of adolescents and young adults at American schools and universities. One in three U.S. adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, and 43% of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors, including physical, sexual, tech, verbal and controlling abuse.
“We have unhealthy relationships that end up in murder,” says Christina Escobar, director of Love Is Respect, a non-profit organization dedicated to building healthy relationships. “Dating abuse starts when dating starts,” which can be as early as middle school.
Even if the abuse doesn’t result in a homicide, the trauma from it can affect a young victim’s development. Dating abuse puts adolescent and young adult victims at a higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and domestic violence later on in their lives.
Despite the widespread occurrence of dating violence and its devastating consequences, research indicates many administrators, teachers, public safety officers and counselors don’t know how to properly address the issue. The majority of U.S. high schools lack training or guidelines for counselors in dealing with dating violence, according to a study released by Ball State University last year. Ninety percent said there had been no staff training in the previous two years on the topic even though 61% had counseled victims of dating violence in the past two years.
“The vast majority of schools don’t have a protocol to respond to an incident of dating abuse,” says Jagidsh Khubchandani, who is an assistant professor of community health at Ball State University and author of the study. “Half of the school counselors could not answer half of the knowledge questions on dating abuse, such as ‘What is dating abuse?’” (See What Are Violent and Abusive Dating Behaviors?.)
University and school administrators, faculty, staff, counselors, advocates, public safety practitioners and healthcare workers armed with the facts about teen and young adult dating violence will be better prepared to prevent it, encourage the reporting of it and respond to incidents when they do occur.
Young Victims Learn to Accept Abuse as Normal
Although teen and young adult dating relationships that are violent have a significant number of characteristics that are similar to traditional domestic abuse situations, there are also some differences that impact how campus administrators, faculty and police prevent and respond to incidents.
“[The victim and offender] may be talking or hanging out,” says Casey Corcoran, program director for Futures Without Violence (a non-profit organization dedicated to ending violence against women and children), about K-12 dating abuse. “The relationships may be mostly online or through texts, so the relationships look very different. They might be in class with that person.”
He adds that because these relationships, which could also be same-sex, are usually the students’ first, victims don’t have the experience an adult may have to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors. If they experience violence in a dating relationship, they might begin to believe that abuse is normal.
A victim’s and abuser’s home life usually plays a significant role as well. Anne Munch, who is a consultant and was formerly the prosecutor for Denver, Telluride, Colo., and Jefferson County, Colo., says that often the student’s family has modeled unhealthy relationship behavior at home.
“Your K-12 schools are full of child victims who are either being victimized themselves or are witnessing abuse in their homes and then they are coming to school,” she says. “They are affected deeply. With boys who are exposed to domestic violence at home, it dramatically increases their chances of repeating that behavior.” (It should be noted that, although research indicates the majority of relationship violence offenders are male, females can also perpetrate this type of abuse.)
Regardless of how healthy or unhealthy a kid’s home life may be, most children and young adults who are in their first relationship don’t know how to handle breakups in a healthy way.
This point is particularly noteworthy since breakups are the times in violent relationships when abuse most often escalates or becomes lethal. Educating students on healthy relationships and breakups, however, can help, as can guidance for students on how to interpret the messages being targeted at youth and young adults from the media.
“What we really think makes for a successful relationship program is educating young people on the warning signs and showing that this is a problem that affects them,” says Escobar. “We do a lot of work on media literacy because we see examples of unhealthy relationships in a lot of youth media. We make sure that young people are looking at those critically and not just taking them as OK behavior.”
Colleges Offer Some Support to Victims
For colleges, some intimate partner violence incidents are similar to traditional domestic violence scenarios, especially if the individuals involved are graduate students who live in family housing. In most dating abuse cases involving undergrads, however, the dynamics are different.