Teen Dating Violence Part I : What it is

Medical Institute Science Department Staff

January 2018

Teen Dating Violence (TDV) is aggression that takes place in the context of the romantic relationships of teenagers.  Authorities agree that the hostility can be broken down into three basic types of aggression: physical, sexual, and psychological. In each of these categories there is a wide range of behaviors, from relatively benign antagonisms to life-threatening physical acts. Yet, all forms of aggression and manipulation have consequences that can affect a teen’s present and future well-being.

Teen dating violence is similar, yet different from Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in adults. In adult relationships there is more likely to be an imbalance of power between the partners, usually with the male holding the greater control in the relationship. However, in TDV, there is more equity of power in relationships. For example, teen girls are far less likely to be financially dependent on their romantic partners, which may help explain why mutual aggression is common in teen dating violence.1

Teens are also under much greater influence from their peers than are adults. Often the aggressive behavior between couples takes place in the presence of other teens, especially in the school environment. That means that the attitude of peers about dating violence will influence a teen’s aggressive behavior toward their partner, especially if TDV is “normalized”.  Peer attitudes will also help determine whether or not a teen continues in a relationship when TDV is present. 1,3

Developmental factors also separate IPV from TDV.  MI staff is surprised that the literature on TDV does not mention the immaturity of the adolescent brain.  Rather, a lack of experience in relationships, including poor communication skills is presented under developmental factors.1 Most likely the scientific information on the adolescent brain was not widely available at the time that much of the research studies were done.

In a 2013, Dr. Kevin Vagi led a review of twenty research articles on TDV and came up with a list of 53 risk factors for teens who perpetrate violence in relationships.2  The CDC has listed the top eight risk factors from that review in their fact sheet ‘Understanding Teen Dating Violence”.3 These eight factors are:

  1. Belief that dating violence is acceptable
  2. Depression, anxiety, and other trauma symptoms
  3. Aggression towards peers and other aggressive behavior
  4. Substance use
  5. Early sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners
  6. Having a friend involved in dating violence
  7. Conflict with a partner
  8. Witnessing or experiencing violence in the home.

MI staff is also surprised that “viewing pornography” is not listed among the 53 risk factors that Vagi identified. Many of the studies reviewed by Vagi were done prior to 2010 when high speed internet and the abundance of hand-held devices made hard core pornography accessible to all.  Hopefully, more research will be done specifically to explore the potential link between violent pornography and teen dating violence.

A study in 2012 enlisted the participation of both professionals who work with TDV and young adults who personally experienced violence in their own teen dating experiences. Both groups agreed that communities are unaware and/or unconcerned about teen dating violence. The two groups also agreed that community programs for the prevention and intervention of TDV were generally “unavailable, inappropriate, or helpful, but impersonal.” This lack of awareness is disconcerting considering that 20-50% of teens report having had an aggressive dating relationship.4

When asked to describe the “ideal” prevention or intervention program, the young adults who had experienced TDV offered a number of “dos and don’ts” to the researchers.  One suggestion to the professionals is that they listen carefully to teens, since teens involved in TDV are more likely to give hints to adults rather than describe their dating situation openly.  Professionals should not expect that teens will quickly end bad relationships with the realization that they are abusive. Rather they should be prepared to take a gradual, but persistent approach to intervention.4

Both the former TDV young adults and the professionals agreed that programs aimed at preventing and correcting TDV should involve mentors, including teen mentors, and male mentors. They also agreed that teens need to be taught about what an abusive relationship looks like and what a healthy relationship looks like, along with a clear understanding of what should not be tolerated. Additionally, teens need to be taught how to effectively handle their anger.4

In light of the fact that communities continue to be unaware or unconcerned about teen dating violence, Medical Institute will continue to produce articles on Teen Dating Violence and post them on our website, in our newsletters, and on social media sites.  Look for future articles specifically dealing with physical, emotional, and sexual violence in teen relationships.

We would love to hear from you. Please post your comments on our blog following this post.


  1. Mulford C., Giordano, PC>, “Teen Dating Violence: A Closer Look at Adolescent Romantic Relationships,” NIJ Journal, Issue No. 261; pp 34-40 (2008). https://www.nij.gov/journals/261/pages/teen-dating-violence.aspx
  2. Vagi KJ, Rothman E, Latzman NE, et al, “Beyond Correlates: A Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Adolescent Dating Violence Perpetration,” Youth Adolesc. 2013Apr; 42(4): 633-649. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3697003/
  3. CDC, “Understanding Teen Dating Violence: Fact Sheet,”2016. https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DCDIC/SACB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Teen%20Dating%20Violence/TeenDatingViolenceFactsheet2016.pdf
  4. .Martsolf DS, Colbert C, Drauker CB, “Adolescent Dating Violence Prevention and Intervention in a Community Setting: Perspectives of Young Adults and Professionals,’” The Qualitative Report 2012, Volume 17, Article 99, 1-23. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ990030.pdf

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