Teen Dating Abuse Is A Public Health Crisis. Here's How To Change That.

A new study found that 90% of teens killed by an intimate partner are girls.

When Yeardley Love died, she was just three weeks shy of graduating from the University of Virginia. It was there she’d met her boyfriend, fellow lacrosse player George Huguely.

Two years after they met, Love died of blunt force trauma to the head. She was killed by Huguely, whom she’d recently broken up with.

Though the 22-year-old’s death was shocking, there had been a pattern of anger and abuse. In the months leading up to her murder, Huguely put Love in a chokehold, was seen arguing with her in public and sent irate emails to her after they split.

Love’s death ― and Huguely’s eventual conviction for second-degree murder ― made headlines and led her family to create One Love, a foundation that provides educational workshops to students across the country on what unhealthy relationships look like.

“No one understood the risk [Yeardley Love] was in because no one around her had been taught the signs of unhealthy and abusive love.”

- Katie Hood, CEO of One Love

Katie Hood, the CEO of the organization, was best friends with Love’s cousin when the tragedy happened.

“Living through the shock of Yeardley’s death with her family made this issue personal to me for the first time,” she said. “No one understood the risk she was in because no one around her had been taught the signs of unhealthy and abusive love.”

Sadly, that’s not uncommon. We rarely talk about teen dating abuse ― defined as psychological, physical and sexual aggression within a young person’s relationship ― yet it happens often enough that experts are calling it a public health issue. One in three teenage girls in the U.S. are victims of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to a 2008 report ― that’s a number that greatly exceeds rates of other types of youth violence. LGBTQ youth face an even greater risk of dating abuse, with transgender teens especially vulnerable.

A study published in the April issue of JAMA Pediatrics found that between 2003 to 2016, nearly 7% of the 2,200 homicides of kids ages 11 to 18 in which the victim knew the killer came at the hands of current or former romantic partners. Girls made up 90% of those victims.

The end of the relationship or jealousy provoked more than a quarter of those homicides, the researchers found, and a majority of the deaths involved guns ― a detail that tracks with general domestic violence stats. Over half of female victims of intimate-partner homicide in the U.S. are killed with a gun.

In spite of its prevalence and potential severity, nearly 81% of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know.

Many parents view the relationships of their teen (or college-aged) child as casual and non-serious, according to Avanti Adhia, the lead author of the new study and a senior fellow at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“I think there has been a perception that these early dating relationships are casual and maybe teens fight, but it’s not seen as serious compared to intimate partner violence among adults,” she told HuffPost.

“While the dynamics of these relationships may be quite different than among adults ― the couple doesn’t have kids, there’s no financial dependence ― it’s a public health issue we need to take seriously and think about prevention at an early age,” Adhia added.

Here’s how:

Prevention starts with teaching teens and preteens what emotional abuse looks like.

Without an understanding of emotional abuse, many teens fall victim to it.
Justin Lambert via Getty Images
Without an understanding of emotional abuse, many teens fall victim to it.

Without any education on what constitutes emotional abuse and dating violence, teens struggle to identify it in their own lives.

Teen dating abuse might play out in physical abuse, but it’s also more subtle than that: It’s a partner putting you down verbally and calling you names. It’s feeling isolated from friends and family because an S.O. expects you to spend all your free time with them. It’s having text messages rifled through because your partner is suspicious about whom you’re texting.

Because of our narrowly defined perceptions of abuse (we tend to downplay any that isn’t physical) and because our cultural narratives portray possessiveness and jealousy as signs of love, young people may not recognize when emotional abuse creeps into their lives. Anyone can fall victim to it just as anyone can perpetrate it.

Because emotional abuse can be harder to spot, Hood believes workshops about abuse need to be part of preteens’ lessons, just like sex ed.

“For too long we’ve treated relationships as a soft topic to learn about on the fly, through experience, but we [should] really view the ability to love better as a skill that should be more formally taught through schools,” she said. “Education can save lives and over time change norms around dating abuse.”

Teaching boys about toxic masculinity is essential, too.

Boys need to be encouraged to show their vulnerable side.
Hero Images via Getty Images
Boys need to be encouraged to show their vulnerable side.

Mapping out what a healthy relationship looks like is a great start, but we can’t stop there. Schools have a huge stake in teaching boys about toxic masculinity, too. After all, data shows a troubling number of school shootings have been fueled in part by teen boys’ anger toward girls after romantic rejection.

In Maine, there’s a great example of what prevention might look like. Maine Boys To Men is a nonprofit aimed at reducing violence against women and girls by focusing on positive expressions of masculinity. So far, its programs have served 2,187 middle school students.

The majority of those programs are delivered during class time, reaching groups of 15-20 boys over the course of four weeks. Through peer-to-peer discussion and role-playing, the boys are given a space to examine limiting definitions of masculinity that value sexism, violent problem-solving and dominance.

More importantly, they’re given the language to talk about a broader view of manhood ― one in which men can be self-aware and socially conscious. They’re reassured that masculinity isn’t inherently bad and that men can forge healthy, authentic relationships, be vulnerable and seek help when they need it.

“Middle-school-aged boys have the maturity and enough life experience to have real discussions about gender-related pressures and the impact this has on them and others.”

- Matt Theodores, executive director at Maine Boys To Men

The program targets middle school boys for a good reason, said executive director Matt Theodores.

“By the time boys reach high school, they have become very accepting of traditional masculine stereotypes and are far less open to ideas that challenge those norms,” he said. “Middle-school-aged boys have the maturity and enough life experience to have real discussions about gender-related pressures and the impact this has on them and others.”

A recent study of the Maine program by Rutgers University found that it has been effective in changing attitudes. Now, trained teachers and school administrators are also leading the program independently, with some support from the organization.

While schools can provide a framework, Theodores stressed that parents have an important role to play. He said parents need to talk about what healthy relationships look like and to give particular attention to how boys are learning masculinity.

“As a parent myself, I would encourage them to give their sons permission to be themselves,” Theodores said. “Permission to show vulnerability, to cry when they are hurting, to ask for help when they need it, to feel empathy for others who are hurting or being hurt. Boys need permission to treat themselves and each other lovingly.”

Talking about abusive relationships and toxic masculinity with kids is not easy. But addressing these issues at home and in school early and often could go a long way toward stopping dating violence before it begins.

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