Why Educating and Empowering Teens Is the Key to Ending Domestic and Dating Violence

One in three young adults experiences some form of abuse. Teaching teens how to build healthy relationships can break the cycle.

(Photo: Marc Romanelli/Getty Images)

Aug 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Joseph Jessie is the communications manager at Break the Cycle.

Domestic abuse is a topic that few want to talk about. It is a silent epidemic that may be seen through bruises and cuts or heard through yelling and screaming. Too often, nothing happens to stop it. So many stay silent about their abuse, not realizing that the choice to remain silent may have harsher consequences than the abuse itself. We’re familiar with this topic as it pertains to adults, but many are surprised to find that dating abuse is so prevalent among adolescents and young people.

At Break the Cycle, we work to not only educate but also empower young people to build healthy relationships. We use pop culture, social media, and education programs to give teenagers the information they need to learn what dating abuse is and how to see the warning signs.

What exactly is dating abuse? We define it as “a pattern of abusive behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner.” In 2012, the United States Census found that there were more than 41 million teens, making up 14 percent of the population. Dating abuse may not seem common among youths, but one in three young adults will experience some form of it. That’s 13 million teens who are affected.

Today our youths are facing several forms of dating abuse: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, digital, and financial.

The type of abuse we are most accustomed to seeing is physical, which is any use of physical force with the intent to cause fear or injury, such as hitting, shoving, biting, strangling, kicking, or using a weapon.

Verbal or emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior, such as threats, insults, constant monitoring, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, or stalking. This form of abuse may be harder to spot. For example, isolation may not seem like a form of abuse, but not allowing your partner to spend time with his or her friends and family is one method of control.

We may believe we know what sexual abuse is, but it’s important that we define it. It is any action that affects a person’s ability to control his or her sexual activity or the circumstances in which it occurs, including rape, coercion, or the restriction of access to birth control. In the last few months, the topic of sexual abuse has circulated widely on dozens of college campuses as stories of poorly handled sexual assault cases have come to light.

While we know that teens text, tweet, post, and so on, we may not know how technology lends itself to potential abuse. Digital abuse can be defined as the use of technologies and/or social media networking to intimidate, harass, or threaten a current or ex-dating partner. This includes demanding passwords, checking cell phones, cyberbullying, sexting, and excessive or threatening texts or stalking on social media. Teens send upwards of 100 text messages a day, but imagine if nearly half of those text messages were from an abusive partner asking you where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and when you would be home. Demanding to read text messages and have the passwords to social media accounts and email are all forms of abuse because they take away the ability to control technological privacy.

Financial abuse, which some may say is more relevant to adults, is starting to find its way into youth relationships. Buying a partner’s love is one way to control them. Restricting access to his or her money, bank accounts, credit cards, or spending is another form of control. Though a partner may seem nice because he or she is paying for everything, that person may be taking financial independence away from his or her partner. Trapping a person in a financially dependent relationship is a form of abuse.

To end domestic violence, we must meet it where it starts—with young people. It’s critical that we let them know about the resources that are available to help them. Thanks to a partnership between Break the Cycle and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, young men and women can call 866-331-947 or text “loveis” (22522) and talk to a trained peer advocate about relationships.

Dating abuse is real. It is happening—and to so many young people today. If we can teach them how to have healthy relationships, we can stop the problem before it starts.