How to prevent teen dating violence

by Dr. Alazne Aizpitarte

Psychologist & Family and Couple Therapist. Researcher in Teen Dating Violence.

When we hear of “intimate partner violence,” what suddenly comes to mind are beatings, bruises, or rapes. But it is not this type of severe physical or sexual behavior which characterizes the majority of cases of violence in teen couples, at least not from the very beginning of the relationship. These are mostly more subtle psychological behaviors, such as controlling the partner and isolation attempts from family and friends, followed by insults and humiliation.

Psychological violence as a precursor

It is completely understandable that the images that come to mind when listening to “intimate partner violence” are associated with cases as serious as a beating or even murder. However, it is important to emphasize that these assumptions are often the tip of the iceberg. By the time this situation has happened, it is likely that violent psychological behaviors, such as humiliations, insults and, especially, excessive control, have appeared previously in the relationship. Hence, one of the keys to combat the most atrocious acts is the prevention of psychological abuse.

This brings us to three conclusions:

  1. In the general population of teen couples, this type of violence (i.e., psychological) is the most prevalent;
  2. Only a subpopulation of couples involved in an unhealthy relationship reaches the most severe behaviors which are made visible by society;
  3. Physical violence does not appear suddenly within the relationship. It coexists with other forms of aggression, especially the psychological ones.

Longitudinal studies have shown that psychological violence in teen dating relationships is a key risk factor for the appearance of more severe behaviors such as hitting or forcing sexual intercourse.

The role of the new technologies

Teenagers have grown up with new technologies, and it is useless to insist that they not use them. The challenge here is to promote its good use and help teenagers reflect on the consequences of certain behaviors, whether they are online or offline.

It should be clarified that social networks and mobile phones do not cause people to become controlling and harassing. They are only an easy tool to use for those who already are, and for those who feel the need to control their partners. New technologies favor this.

They allow you to check out when your partner has connected to WhatsApp for the last time, what photos she has uploaded to social networks, what comments were written on his public wall, what clothes she wore that day …

In summary, the intentionality and the impulsive need to control the couple is not born with the new technologies, instead is born of oneself.

Controlling people, according to the studies, tend to have a certain profile: they are jealous, often impulsive, and distrustful of their surroundings; with their partner, they tend to have a negative self-image and low self-esteem, and they are fearful and anxious about the possibility of abandonment and the breakup.

“My partner controls me because he/she loves me”

The most worrisome of these controlling behaviors is not their frequency but how they are perceived by teenagers. The controlling behaviors which are normalized by adolescents are perceived as signs of love and passion towards the dating partner.

Comments such as: “He calls me at every single minute because he cares a lot about me”; “She gets jealous because she loves me a lot”; “If he would not be jealous, I would not like it at all because it would mean that he did not care about me”, etc.

They reach such a point of normalization that explosive and even aggressive reactions motivated by jealousy are not penalized by them since, in their opinion, they are the reflection of the passion that must exist in a romantic relationship. Therefore, beliefs about romantic love also become a key risk factor since they come to positively associate the need for the coexistence of passion, jealousy, and conflict.

It is important to emphasize that these behaviors and beliefs of unhealthy relationships in the adolescent stage are seen in both boys and girls, and in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, even if they might be manifested in different ways.

Realities as a model

To all the previous, we should add that our teens absorb certain models of relationships that they see in the mass media and take them as romantic references to follow.

Teenagers are the target audience of some realities based on morbid curiosity and conflict. They inhale these models and messages every day, mostly without any referent adult or educational initiative that puts in doubt these unhealthy models.

They assume, therefore, as “normal” and even “ideal” ways of relating in such a critical developmental stage that is adolescence in the creation of romantic relationships’ schemes. Did anyone ever tell us what we will feel when we fall in love? Or how to differentiate between healthy vs. unhealthy relationships?

It is important that adults, and society in general, know about the implications of the romantic relationships in the adolescent stage. Adolescents start exploring romantic relationships in a period where they have an unstoppable tendency of exploration, in full awakening of sexual desire, and being still immature and emotionally unstable. And they embark on this path without enough guidance and education to be able to face and handle so many situations in this complex “training camp”.

Therefore, teenagers are a highly vulnerable population due to the characteristics of the adolescent developmental period. The good news is that neuroscience shows us that adolescence is also characterized as being a developmental stage of great flexibility, with huge learning opportunities for change due to its great neuroplasticity in the socio-emotional field and interpersonal relationships.


All this points to the need to do prevention from early adolescence (or even before) with the aim of educating our teens in the promotion of healthy dating relationships. In this mission it will be important to equip them with the necessary socio-emotional skills to face new and complex situations that they are likely to encounter.

Associated with the latter, it will be key to work on awareness and emotional regulation, promote empathy and respect for others, encourage supportive behaviors and egalitarian attitudes towards their peers, make them reflect on the consequences of certain behaviors and attitudes (offline and online), as well as helping to properly channel the anger, sadness, euphoria, and frustration they will experience on that roller coaster that is adolescence.

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Pamela Travis
Pamela Travis

Thanl you, very informative!

Cynthia Lackner, MA
Cynthia Lackner, MA

I have been working with teens for years. I was part of a dating violence prevention program where I taught teens, how to teach other teens, how to have healthy relationships. At the time, it was the only peer taught program in the country.
Education is the key!

Ann Kihara
Ann Kihara

I appreciate the depth of your research and the positive suggestions that you have given to address this very real problem in our adolescent cultures. I am going to share this information with my adult daughter and her teenage daughter. This negative developmental pattern also happens in many adult couples leading to highly distressed, unstable marriages, families, and children, perpetuating the negative models. Thank you for you insights, and I am interested in more information.

Traci McMinn-Joubert
Traci McMinn-Joubert

Cynthia, What was the name of that training program and do you know of any others in the country? I work part time for a suicide prevention organization and this would be a great program to add and implement.

Simcha Shtull
Simcha Shtull

I would be interested in having Dr. Aizpitarte and some of the other readers who have written in – share the names of successful dating violence prevention/healthy relationship programs for teens they have been involved in or other related resources that might be adapted . Thanks

Simcha Shtull
Simcha Shtull

Is it possible to get hold of the dating violence prevention program you worked with? Has it been duplicated in other cities?


kAll good information, and I’d also like direction to more specific tools. Best way to teach adolescents emotional regulation? To promote empathy? Tools for reflecting on consequences of behavior?For channeling anger and sadness? I think the background information is excellent — specifics would be very helpful for parents I work with.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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