Updated 04 September 2013

When young love hurts

For one in three teenagers their first love is an introduction to physical, emotional or sexual abuse.


Nothing shocked the worldwide community of tweens, teens and young adults more than Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna. It has put the spotlight on dating abuse. Recent studies show that not only is dating abuse on the rise but, more alarmingly, teenagers are starting to accept it as normal.

Teenagers start dating at a young age, according to a survey on tween and teen dating. Researchers found that three in four teens said that boyfriend/girlfriend relationships usually begin at age 14 or younger, more than one in three 11-12 year olds said they have been in a relationship, and sex is considered to be a normal part of a relationship for 11-14 year olds.

According to statistics one in three teenagers has experienced violence in a relationship.  Dating violence often occurs when one partner wants to exert power and control over the other, and both boys and girls fall victim to dating violence.

A US survey done in 2006 by the Liz Claiborne Inc and Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) found that 13% of the girls involved in the survey reported having been in a relationship where they had been physically assaulted, one in four girls revealed that they were pressured to perform sexual acts and more than one in four girls reported being subjected to repeated verbal abuse.

The South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey done in 2002 found that 13.6% of girls participating in the survey reported that they had been assaulted by their boyfriends, and 11.1% said they were forced to have sex.

Types of abuse
According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) there are three common types of dating violence:

- Physical -  when a partner is hit, pinched, shoved or kicked
- Emotional - when a partner is threatened or their sense of self worth is harmed. Examples thereof are name-calling, bullying, teasing or isolation from family and friends
- Sexual - when a partner is forced to engage in a sexual act

Technological advances have become tools used to intimidate and emotionally abuse teenagers. Digital harassment by cell phone and internet is rife amongst teenagers. A recent survey found that 18.6% of teens said a boyfriend/girlfriend spread rumours about them using a cell phone, email, instant messaging, web chat, blog or a social networking site.

Why do teens abuse?
Teenagers are inexperienced in dating relationships, and often have romantic ideas about love.  They struggle to communicate and relate to their partner, which in turn leads to the use of poor coping mechanisms such as verbal and physical aggression.  

A South African study found that boys used violence as a means to impose dating rules when they were rejected by girls, when girls refused sex, and when a partner tried to end the relationship.  Data also shows that there is a constant battle for power between partners in a teen relationship.

Peer influences also play an important role in teen dating violence.  A US study found that about half of teen dating violence occurs in the presence of a third party.  Girls often accept being abused as normal because their friends are also being abused.

The effects of abuse
Abusive relationships can have a lasting effect on the lives of teens.  Teens who experience abuse are more likely to do badly at school, engage in risky behaviour, have low self-esteem, become depressed and even suicidal, and they may also carry patterns of violence into other relationships.

A 2007 study done to find out how violence might impact teens found that both girls and boys who experienced violence were more likely to display three or more of ten behavioural and psychological health problems. These include binge eating, cigarette smoking, alcohol or marijuana use, depressive symptoms and low self esteem.

Warning signs to look out for

- Sweeping you off your feet, this is the number one sign of a potential abusive relationship.
- Jealousy.  Not wanting you to have other friends, thinking everyone wants you, expecting you to spend all your time with them.
- Controlling behaviour.  Keeping track of where you are, and who you are with, telling you what to wear, choosing your friends, taking your money, threatening to commit suicide or spread gossip about you if you leave.

What every parent should know
Parents are often unaware that their child is in an abusive relationship.  Here are some signs to look out for:

- Physical signs of injury such as scratches and bruises
- Personality and constant mood changes – becoming secretive, depressive and nervous.
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities and school work
- Isolated from friends and family, and only spending time with the partner
- Changes in appearance and dress code

Get help now
If you are a teen in an abusive relationship speak to someone you trust, or contact Lifeline on 0861 322 322.

(Leandra Engelbrecht, Health24, December 2009)

(Picture: sad girl from Shutterstock)

- Abusive relationships.
- Mulford. C ,Giordano.P. Teen Dating Violence: A Closer Look at Adolescent Romantic Relationships. NIJ Journal. 261: 34-40
- 2000 Teen Dating Violence and Social Environment Survey. 2005 Teen Dating Abuse Survey. 2008 Tween/Teen Dating Relationships Survey. 2009 Troubled Economy Linked to High levels of Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Survey.
- Centres for Disease Control. Understanding Teen Dating Violence Fact sheet.
- Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Dating Violence.
-2007.Anne Harding. Teen dating violence in the spotlight. Published on the Web by IOL.
- Teens turn to technology for dating abuse. Posted by Ramon Thomas, February 2007.
-1998. Wood. K, Jewkes. R. 'Love is a dangerous thing': micro-dynamic of violence in sexual relationships of young people in Umtata. CERSA – Women's Health. Medical Research Council
-The South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey 2002


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