Teen Dating Violence and Trauma

Brittney Doll Schaeffer, MS, LMFT

A woman, just 20-years-old when she walked into her first therapy appointment, sat on the suede couch with her eyes downcast and her shoulders hunched forward. She put her purse on the ground and started to sway back and forth. She looked like a small, beaten animal. Perhaps she was. Her top lip was split and she had several scars on her fragile face.

She went on to confess that her boyfriend of three years had beat her, and that this was not the first time that it had happened. In fact, abuse was quite common in their relationship. She wanted to explore some of her options. Why was this happening? What is perpetuating this abuse? And what could be done?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention produced an Understanding Teen Dating Violence fact sheet, which defines teen dating violence (TDV) as physical violence, psychological/emotional violence, sexual violence, and/or stalking. states that 1.5 million high school students will experience dating violence in a single year. One in three adolescent girls will be the victim of physical, psychological/emotional, or sexual assault from a dating partner.

Why is this happening?

Some researchers have emphasized Social Learning Theory (SLT) when trying to explain teen dating violence. SLT theorizes that what we observe, we do. Youth that observe violence between intimate partners in childhood may be more likely to perpetuate violence against an intimate partner when they reach adolescence.

In one study, youth and mothers were asked to report on the teen’s exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) in childhood, exposure to harsh parenting, trauma symptoms in adolescence, and teen dating violence. What the researchers found was the children exposed to IPV and harsh parenting were more likely to exhibit symptoms of traumatic stress, including anger, aggression and hypervigilance. There is also a correlation between female aggression toward dating partners and sexual abuse in early childhood (Jouriles et al., 2012).

Working to prevent childhood abuse, childhood sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence has lasting implications for the next generation. Children that experience abuse are more likely to perpetuate violence upon another later in life but studies are also finding that youth that witness abuse have similar outcomes.

What is perpetuating this cycle?

It is widely accepted that violence within relationships are a complex attempt at meeting the very basic human need of connecting with others and attaching to an intimate partner. Youth that have received conflicting messages about love and attachment in early childhood are often trying to wrestle with these same messages into their teen years. They have conflicting desires for intimacy, sex, independence, and safety (Wekerle et al., 2009).

Jouriles et al. (2012) states that trauma experienced in early childhood, as a result of witnessing IPV, can produce symptoms of hypervigilance within relationships. If the traumatized partner perceives a threat within the relationship, that is, a weakening of attachment, he/she may try to use power and control to strengthen attachment. If this is the pattern that youth have witnessed in childhood, they are more likely to perpetuate this cycle of power and control.

What can be done?

Know the warning signs. Are you wondering if you, a friend, or a child might be in a violent relationship? Education is key. One study indicated that more than 80% of teen parents did not believe teen dating violence to be a problem. And more than 50% could not recognize the warning signs.

Adolescents also need to be educated about the prevalence of trauma, trauma symptoms, and the attachment needs that lie beneath their need to maintain power and control. It is also important to educate about the symptoms of trauma. Teens sometimes struggle to connect the dots between past events and current behavior.

Educating teenagers about teen dating violence is a preventative measure. Adolescents that are allowed the opportunity to explore their own traumatic stress, personal resiliency, and coping skills today are less likely to behave violently in intimate partner relationships tomorrow.

Jouriles, E. N., Mueller, V., Rosenfield, D., McDonald, R., & Dodson, M. C. (2012). Teens’ experiences of harsh parenting and exposure to severe intimate partner violence: Adding insult to injury in predicting teen dating violence. Psychology of Violence, 2(2), 125-138.

Wekerle, C., Leung, E., Wall, A. M., MacMillan, H., Boyle, M., Trocme, N. et al. (2009). The contribution of childhood emotional abuse to teen dating violence among child protective services-involved youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33, 45-58.