February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. It’s a good time for teenagers and their parents to talk about healthy and unhealthy behaviors in a relationship, said Janette Wheat, Ph.D.

Wheat is an associate professor and Cooperative Extension Program human development specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Teen dating violence can be prevented when teens, families, organizations and communities work together to implement effective prevention strategies, according to a news release.

Teen dating violence (TDV) is a type of intimate partner violence that occurs between two people in a close relationship, Wheat said. It can be physical, emotional or sexual and can include stalking.

TDV can occur in person or electronically via texting, social media and other online applications. When it occurs electronically, this type of violence can include repeated texting or posting sexual pictures of a partner online without consent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TDV includes four types of behavior:

• Physical violence – when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking or using another type of physical force.

• Sexual violence – forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act, sexual touching or a non-physical sexual event such as sexting when the partner does not or cannot consent.

• Psychological aggression – the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or exert control over another person.

• Stalking – a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.

“Teens often think some behaviors such as teasing and name-calling, are a ‘normal’ part of a relationship – but these behaviors can become abusive and develop into serious forms of violence,” Wheat said. “Many teens do not report unhealthy behaviors because they are afraid to tell family and friends.”

Dating violence is common and affects millions of teens in the U.S. each year. According to a recent national CDC survey, eight percent of high school students reported physical violence, and seven percent reported they experienced sexual violence from a dating partner within the last year.

Data from CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey indicate:

• Nearly one in 11 female high school students and approximately one in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year.

• About one in nine female students and one in 36 male students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year.

• Twenty-six percent of women and 15 percent of men who were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime first experienced these or other forms of violence by that partner before age 18.

• The burden of TDV is not shared equally across all groups. Sexual minority groups are affected by all forms of violence to a much greater degree. Some racial/ethnic minority groups are more commonly affected by many types of violence.

Wheat said unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime. According to the CDC, teens who are victims in high school are at higher risk for victimization during college and into adulthood.

“Victims of TDV are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Wheat said. “They might also engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as tobacco, drug and alcohol use, and they might exhibit antisocial behaviors like lying, theft, bullying or hitting. Some victims also have suicidal thoughts.”

Supporting the development of healthy, respectful and nonviolent relationships has the potential to reduce the occurrence of TDV and prevent its harmful and long-lasting effects on individuals, their families and the communities where they live, Dr. Wheat said.

“It is critical for youth to begin learning the skills needed to create and maintain healthy relationships during the pre-teen and teen years,” she said. “These skills include things like how to manage feelings and how to communicate in a healthy way.”

The CDC developed “Dating Matters®: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships” to stop teen dating violence before it starts. The program focuses on youth, 11-14 years old, and includes multiple prevention components for individuals, peers, families, schools and neighborhoods. All the components work together to reinforce healthy relationship messages and reduce behaviors that increase the risk of dating violence.

The CDC’s Dating Matters program and a technical package on preventing intimate partner violence can be accessed online at www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence. Other website resources include articles, publications, data sources and prevention materials.

“Teaching healthy relationship skills and changing norms about violence can help prevent teen dating violence,” Wheat said. “Talk to teens now about the importance of developing healthy, respectful relationships.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.