Protecting youth in care from dating violence

Claudia Kearney

by Claudia Kearney

It is not talked about much, but teen dating violence is extremely common. Nearly 1.5 million high school students a year are physically abused by a dating partner. The violence is not always physical—it can also be sexual or emotional. Statistics show that one in three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, or emotional violence in a dating relationship.

These, of course, are just the reported cases. Acts of dating violence go unreported every day. Some victims do not want to lose the relationship with their partner or get the person in trouble. Others worry about losing friends, appearing weak, or developing a reputation as a “snitch.” Any of these labels can make school life extremely hard.

Dating Violence Thrives in Secrecy
What can we do to help teens with a concern this complex but as common as acne?

Talk about it! Teen dating violence, like with domestic violence, thrives in secrecy. It continues because no one knows it is happening, or because the few who do know are not talking. People often wait for the victim to ask for help, or they offer help once and if the victim refuses, they never ask again.

What should you do if you think your teen is experiencing violence in a dating relationship? One approach is to begin with general questions about what a healthy relationship looks like. This is a non-threatening way to get a conversation started if you see one or more of the signs in box at right. Be forewarned: these conversations are not always easy. However, you can do this!

Start the conversation by asking questions such as: Describe an ideal partner… What makes that person ideal? Now describe your partner… How is your partner different from your ideal partner? Is there a couple that you admire? What do you admire about them?

For teens who have experienced trauma these questions may be challenging. Vulnerability is very scary to a traumatized teen. It may bring up feelings they have suppressed or ignored. Consciously or not, they may try to protect themselves by disguising their fear with anger or defiance. Be patient.

Many young people in foster care want to be seen as strong and capable of making good choices. Admitting a partner has been violent is admitting they made a poor choice. Like adult victims in unhealthy relationships, youth may believe they can “handle it” and their partner will go back to being the wonderful person they were at first.

What Can Resource Parents Do?
Here are some ideas for talking with your teenager about dating violence.

Be aware of your own feelings about domestic violence. Often people think they can hide their feelings about teen dating or domestic violence. Although you may be able to filter what you say, if you have not dealt with your feelings your body language may send a different message.

Make time for the conversation. Your child needs your full attention. This is not a 10-minute talk or one where others are present. As you know, even if someone else in the room appears not to be paying attention, they can be listening to every word.

Study up. Although you cannot know everything, you want to enter into this conversation with a basic understanding of the dangers, dynamics, and common excuses used to dismiss teen dating violence. Educating yourself will help you help your teen and provide culturally appropriate resources. Knowing the possible signs at the end of this article is a good place to start.

Be ready to hear “Everything is great.” If your child tells you “Everything is great!” continue the conversation. Ask:

  • Tell me about an interaction you had with your partner that was not great.
  • How did you feel at that time?
  • What did you and your partner do to resolve the situation?

Even if your teenager does not answer you, they have had a chance to think about the questions you ask. You know your child best: craft the follow-up questions in whatever way you need to keep the conversation going. You will know when to stop.

Have resources ready for your child to review or if they feel they want help. Not all agencies are the same. It is very important that the resources you provide are culturally appropriate to your teenager.

Must I Really Have This Talk?
One of the most common questions about teenage dating violence is: Why do we have to talk with them? Teenagers are not going to tell us anything!

They may not tell us anything, but they will have heard us. We need them to hear us so they do not try to go it alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that teens who experience dating violence are at a much higher risk for a variety of serious problems, including using marijuana or cocaine, getting into fights, carrying a weapon, having sex, and having sex with multiple partners. Teens who experience dating violence are also twice as likely to consider suicide. And the increased risk for these problems does not magically end when teens become adults.

Fortunately, there is help for you and your teenager. In your county, a domestic violence agency can point you in the right direction for resources. If you need help locating this agency in your community, visit the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence at Even if you are not at the point where you need help, is a great place to gather information to talk about with your teen. Other sites worth a look include:

  • Love is Respect ( provides info. on teen dating violence. Call 866/331-9474 (TTY 866/331-8653) with questions or for information. Anyone uncomfortable talking or unable to talk can text: loveis to 22522.
  • Survivor to Survivor (
  • National Network to End Domestic Violence (
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence ( They also have a hotline staffed 24/7; just call 800/799-SAFE.

Claudia Kearney is a trainer for the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State University.

Early Warning Signs of Teen Dating Violence
Researchers who study teen dating violence have identified several early warning signs that a dating relationship might be likely to turn violent. These warning signs do not mean a relationship will definitely turn violent. However, if you notice several of them in your relationship or partner, you may need to re-evaluate your dating relationship. These warning signs include:

  • Excessive jealousy
  • Constant checking in with you or making you check in with him or her
  • Attempts to isolate you from friends and family
  • Insults or puts down people you care about
  • Is too serious about the relationship too quickly
  • Has had a lot of bad prior relationships – and blames all problems on the previous partners
  • Is very controlling; this may include giving you orders, telling you what to wear, or trying to make all decisions for you
  • Blames you when they treat you badly by telling you all the ways you provoked them
  • Does not take responsibility for own actions
  • Has an explosive temper (“blows up” a lot)
  • Pressures you into sexual activity with which you are not comfortable
  • Has a history of fighting, hurting animals, or brags about mistreating other people
  • Believes strongly in stereotypical gender roles for males and females
  • You worry about how your partner will react to the things you say or you are afraid of provoking your partner
  • Owns or uses weapons
  • Refuses to let you end the relationship

Source: McGhee, 2015