Dr. Shannon Cousineau, LICSW
Assistant Professor of Social Work, Anna Maria College

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Social Work Assistant Professor, Dr. Shannon Cousineau, LICSW, offers her insights on teen dating violence. She speaks to the scope and tips on how to recognize if a teen you know is in an unhealthy relationship. The Social Work programs at Anna Maria College prepare students for a career working with individuals across the lifespan, as well as with groups, communities, and organizations.

What is teen dating violence?
Teen dating violence (TDV), also known as adolescent dating violence (ADV) is a type of intimate partner violence (IPV) specifically related to teen dating. Intimate partner violence (IPV) used to be called domestic violence, but we know it goes beyond the walls of the home. Teen dating violence, like IPV involves physical harm (hitting, kicking, biting), psychological harm (verbally and non-verbal control, belittling or name calling) sexual harm (forcing sexual acts, sexting, without consent) as well as stalking (repeated attention that causes fear for one’s safety).

Who is impacted by TDV?
As much as we like to think it can’t happen to our teen, TDV is much more common than we think. TDV often goes unreported because teens think the behaviors are normal, or they may be scared to report it. Every two years the CDC conducts a survey of youth in 9th through 12th grades and the report for 2019’s survey was published in August of 2020. In the CDC report written by Basile, et.al. (2020) the latest national statistics from 2019 show that of those teens who had been in a relationship within the year prior:

  • Sexual dating violence was experienced by 8.2% nationally. For those teens identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual that number is 16.4%.
  • In Massachusetts it is 6.0% total teens and 17.6% of those identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, respectively.
  • Physical dating violence was experienced by 8.2% overall and 13.1% for teens identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual.
  • In Massachusetts, it is 6.9% overall and 17.7% for teens identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual.

Stalking is a bit more challenging to identify. Only because it is often categorized under harassment, which can involve other things. But Rothman, et. al. (2020) conducted a survey of 12-18 year olds and found that 48% of those that had been dating experienced dating related stalking or harassment. Staggering numbers, but to add to that, 43% of those that had been dating reported engaging in dating related stalking or harassment (Rothman, et.al., 2020).

Psychological or emotional harm is even harder to identify. Often times psychological abuse is grouped in with stalking or bullying statistics, which makes it difficult to get a good handle on how often it is happening. I’ve seen some statistics from around 2015 showing up to 73% of teens have experienced psychological/emotional abuse in their dating relationships. A big part of this is cyber-abuse- using technology to send emails, snaps, text messages, etc., to a person that is belittling, embarrassing or controlling. This includes looking over the person’s shoulder to see what they are texting or looking at on their phone as a form of control.

How would I know if I (or a teen I know) is in a relationship where there is dating violence?
There are a few key factors that may indicate a teen is in an unhealthy relationship. It’s important to remember that some of them are also signs of other things like depression, so regardless, seek additional support. The main red flags to look for are controlling behaviors like keeping the teen away from friends or family, not letting them go anywhere alone, or constantly checking where the teen is or who they are with, invading their privacy by looking at their phone, emails, etc. The teen may exhibit mood changes (outside the ordinary) like excessive crying, anxiety, or anger outbursts (the person perpetrating the violence may show the same mood changes). The teen may have a drastic drop in grades at school or frequent absences or tardiness. You may notice unexplained bruising on the person’s body. As the relationship and control progresses, it could turn into things like vandalizing property and/or forcing sexual acts.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and the 2021 theme is “Know Your Worth”. What does this mean for adolescents?
This is such an important phrase. It’s important for everyone to know their worth- that who they are matters, we are all unique individuals and they deserve respect. Often teens, not only those in unhealthy relationships, are struggling with self-esteem challenges and they don’t know who they are or if they are worthwhile. This is one of the reasons teen suicide rates are high. But for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month “Know Your Worth” is about awareness that you as a teenager deserve to be treated with respect and to be in healthy relationships. Teens should be empowered to speak up if their relationship isn’t going well. “Know Your Worth” is focusing on what healthy relationships are and recognizing the signs and symptoms of teen dating violence.

What do I do if I – or someone I know – is in an unhealthy relationship?
If you suspect you are in a situation where there is teen dating violence, reach out to someone you trust- a parent, social worker, teacher, friend, other family member, clergy member, etc.- and let them know what is going on. If you aren’t comfortable with that, I’ve listed some local and national resources below. The main message I want to send is you don’t have to stay in an unhealthy situation, there are people that care about you and want to help. Use the support around you!

If you are a parent, friend or other relative be supportive, encourage the youth to seek help and don’t judge. This is a very difficult situation and can be overwhelming. It can cause shame so listen to the teen, but help them seek professional help and guidance as soon as possible. When your child is young, even before the pre-teen years, have open and honest conversations about healthy relationships and social-emotional skills. Keep these conversations going as the youth is developing and beginning to date and even while they are dating. It doesn’t matter your child’s gender or sexual orientation, make sure they know they are worthwhile and you care about them. Inform yourself about the warning signs, symptoms and prevention strategies. Learn more about teen dating violence and its impact, prevention strategies and more from the list below.

National Resources
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/ 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or 1.800.787.3224 (TTY)

The National Dating Violence Hotline: https://www.loveisrespect.org/ (offers texting or online chat options as well as voice calling) Voice- 1.866.331.9474; Text: LOVEIS to 22522

The Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/index.html

Youth.gov: https://youth.gov/youth-topics/teen-dating-violence

Local Resources
UMASS website: https://www.umassmemorialhealthcare.org/umass-memorial-medical-center/services-treatments/childrens-medical-center/z-list-pediatric-services/teen-dating-violence

Mass.gov Promoting Healthy Relationships: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/promoting-healthy-relationships-for-youth-in-massachusetts

SafeLink Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline: https://casamyrna.org/get-support/safelink/ (offers online chat and voice calling) Voice: (877) 785-2020

Basile, K. C., Clayton, H.B., DeGue, S., et. al. Interpersonal violence victimization among high school students: Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019. MMWR Suppl 2020;69 (Suppl-3): 28-37.

Rothman, E. F., Bahrami, E., Okeke, N., & Mumford, E. (2020). Prevalence of and risk markers for dating abuse–related stalking and harassment victimization and perpetration in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents. Youth & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X20921631

Anna Maria College recognizes that sexual misconduct is a serious concern. To address this concern, especially on our campus, Anna Maria College provides educational and preventative programs; services for individuals who have been impacted by sexual misconduct; and accessible, prompt, and equitable methods of investigation and resolution of complaints, including cooperating with Paxton Police when the sexual misconduct rises to the level of a crime.

In addition, all students receive Bystander Intervention Training in the First Year Seminar, a program designed to include all students in the prevention of dating violence by recognizing signs and knowing how and when to intervene and report. Please visit Anna Maria College’s Title IX and Sexual Misconduct Policy for more information.

Watch a recent interview with Dr. Cousineau about this topic featured on Spectrum News.