Teen dating violence happens. This can be hard to believe. We don’t want to think of our teenagers as being victims of relationship abuse, nor do we want to believe our teenagers are behaving in harmful ways toward their girlfriends and boyfriends. We’d also like to think that our adolescents, who are nearing adulthood, wouldn’t put up with someone hurting them. But it happens, and it can happen to any teen. That’s why Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is essential. Knowing the signs of toxic relationships can help teens distance themselves from them, and it can help parents, teachers, and other adults help teens navigate the world of relationships.
(Note: Sometimes, these relationships and behaviors are referred to as toxic. Toxic describes something harmful and poisonous. I think that’s fitting here, plus it broadens the concept of abuse, which can conjure images primarily of physical violence.)
Teen dating violence is more common than we’d like to think. This can be surprising; after all, the hallways of our middle- and high schools aren’t filled with bruised and bandaged students. Abuse isn’t always visible. Teen dating violence—abuse—happens on many levels and to the entire person. It can involve physical abuse, yes, and sexual abuse; it also involves verbal abuse and emotional abuse. While there are always subtle signs that someone is being abused, abuse isn’t always obvious.
When I was a high school teacher and counselor, I saw too many teenagers, boys and girls alike, become trapped in toxic relationships. LoveIsRespect.org reports that
- One in three teens is subjected to physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner
- 80 percent of girls who are victims of physical abuse in their dating relationship continue to date the abusive partner
Those are staggering statistics. Why would so many teens become trapped in toxic relationships? Wouldn’t the signs be obvious, and wouldn’t they get out of a relationship where they were controlled and abused? If the signs were immediately obvious, the answer would likely be yes, they would preserve themselves by walking away. Unfortunately, coupled with the fact that teens are inexperienced and often unsure when it comes to romantic relationships, the signs of toxic behavior are subtle, especially in the beginning.
Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month exists to make teens and adults alike aware of toxic relationships so they avoid becoming trapped and put a stop to abuse that’s happening to them.
For Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, here are six early warning signs of toxic behavior. Examples are from the book Losing Elizabeth.
6 Early Warning Signs of Toxic Behavior
- Choosing things for the other person, without consulting him/her. (In their first interaction, Brad ordered Cokes for Elizabeth and himself without asking her what she wanted.)
- Comments that border on sarcastic, but just innocent enough to slide by. (“Were you planning on coming to tell me that you made the varsity team, or do I have to read about it in the school paper?”)
- Compliments with a hint of an insult (“Wow! You look great. Are you sure you’re the same Elizabeth Carter I saw just two hours ago?”)
- Disinterest in the other person’s friends, family; acting polite when necessary but uncompromising (Brad brushes off Meg; Brad is nice to Elizabeth’s mom when he picks up Elizabeth but firmly refuses to go inside for snacks she had made)
- Wants to be with the other person, without others (At school, Brad insists that he and Elizabeth eat together and with no one else, ever.)
- Quick-tempered, going from calm to angry in an instant (Brad is enraged when someone accidentally bumps his and Elizabeth’s table at a crowded hang-out, spilling soda.)
These signs (especially 1-5) are subtle and tricky. We don’t want to read into everything people say and do, because that’s not healthy for us. The key is to be aware of the nature of toxic behavior and look for repeated patterns. Letting so many subtle things slide can lead to a trap.
Helping people see the warning signs of toxic behavior is an important purpose of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. The more teens know, the more they can empower themselves to resist toxic people and relationships.
For information on Losing Elizabeth and the accompanying curriculum for schools, community groups, and parent groups, see Losing Elizabeth: Groups, Classes, & Programs.
Sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Wellbeing & Words. Each issue is packed with useful tips for enhancing mental health and wellbeing, reading-related tidbits, and updates about my own mental health writing and activities. (I never share e-mail addresses with anyone.)