Student Well-Being

Teen Dating Violence Has Lifelong Consequences. Here’s How Schools Can Help

By Caitlynn Peetz — May 09, 2023 5 min read
High school couple holding hands from behind and walking down an empty school corridor
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Teenagers who experience abuse in their early romantic relationships can face lifelong consequences as a result, research suggests. But schools are uniquely poised to educate students about dating violence, which is an important step in intervening and preventing abuse altogether, experts say.

New research released May 1 builds on several earlier studies that have found persistent health and social impacts after teens experience dating violence, that follow them into adulthood.

The researchers analyzed 38 smaller-scale studies conducted between 2004 and 2022 about the prevalence and long-term impact of teen dating violence. They found that teens who experience dating violence are more likely to experience violence in relationships as adults, have higher rates of depression and suicide attempts, and abuse drugs and alcohol in adulthood. Women were more likely to have long-term problems after experiencing teen dating violence than men, the research concluded.

“This issue is significant and it often starts in young people’s earliest relationships,” said Megan Shackleton, chief program officer for the One Love Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches youth about healthy relationships and relationship abuse. “...It’s a critical piece of so many aspects of a person’s health and well-being.”

Schools are in a unique position to make a big difference. After all, that’s where students spend so many of their waking hours particularly during their most formative years, she said.

Incorporating lessons that focus on healthy relationships and signs of relationship abuse into students’ health curriculum can go a long way, Shackleton said.

Teenagers have little dating experience, if any, and may not intuitively know what is and is not acceptable relationship behavior. That can be especially true for children who don’t have a positive parental relationship to emulate, she said.

And dating violence does not discriminate—it can happen regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic background, according to research.

The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey, in 2021, found that 9.7 percent of high school respondents reported having experienced sexual dating violence in the past year. That number was significantly higher for girls (15.3 percent) than boys (4 percent).

About 8.5 percent of high school students reported experiencing physical dating violence, again with the total higher for girls (10.2 percent) than boys (6.7 percent).

Those percentages have decreased slightly in the past decade. In 2013, 10.3 percent of students who participated in the CDC’s survey said they had been physically abused by a romantic partner in the past year, and 10.4 percent reported experiencing sexual dating violence.

It’s important for district leaders to understand just how serious the effects of teen dating violence can be, experts say. Teens who are victims of dating violence can struggle to keep up in school or exhibit behavioral issues that could prove challenging for teachers and school staff, several studies have concluded.

One study found that 88 percent of teens with a history of dating violence experienced interruptions and difficulties with their education.

Maybe most important is that the consequences of violence, whether physical, emotional, verbal, or online, can affect victims for the rest of their lives.

So it’s critical that schools—the institutions tasked with setting students up for lifelong success—play their part in combating the problem, said Jeanne Surface, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Title IX regulations lay the groundwork outlining schools’ responsibilities if a sexual assault occurs at school, said Surface, who a decade ago coauthored a report in the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education about how schools should respond to youth dating violence.

So, in some cases, schools have set parameters for how to respond to youth dating violence.

“Schools cannot be indifferent to this,” Surface said. “They have to act, or they’re going to get sued. But, more than that, it’s about children’s welfare.”

Making curriculum accessible and effective

But schools can also incorporate lessons about healthy relationships and dating violence into their curriculum.

Although sex education is fairly common for students in middle and high school, it often doesn’t cover healthy relationships or dating violence, researchers say.

As of June 2022, 28 states and the District of Columbia required some level of dating violence prevention education, and nine strongly encouraged it, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.

Whether required or not, schools that incorporate teen dating violence education into their curriculum should be sure their lessons are clear, consistent and relatable, Shackleton said.

Lessons can begin as early as elementary school with a focus on the characteristics of positive friendships, and evolve as students get older to cover romantic relationships.

The lessons offer an opportunity to teach students about setting healthy boundaries, identifying signs of abuse in their own relationships and their friends’, and reaching out for help. They can also cover available resources if students think they’re being abused.

It’s important to point out that oftentimes relationships portrayed as “romantic” and “passionate” on television and in movies are actually examples of toxic behavior, Shackleton said. Using those relatable examples can help educators illustrate unhealthy relationship behavior, such as isolating from friends to spend a lot of time with a partner or starting off really intense, she said.

While one lesson can have a positive effect, Shackleton said, it’s most useful if the messages are reiterated consistently throughout a student’s academic career.

“The earlier we can give young people the tools to understand and to have the skills to practice this in lower-stakes relationships, the more likely it will be that they’re going to be comfortable and able to do those things when they’re entering more intense, higher-stakes relationships,” Shackleton said.

As political battles brew over how schools address gender, sex, and race, Shackleton said it would be a disservice to children to lump education about relationships and dating violence into the same category.

“This is not controversial, and it should not be politicized,” she said. “This is relevant to 100 percent of young people, and they need this education.”

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