Adolescents Not Invulnerable to Abusive Relationships

by Julie Ray, Contributing Editor

One in eight teens knows someone in an abusive situation

Johnny loves Susie, and Susie loves Johnny. But a few weeks ago, Johnny started calling Susie names. And then last week, he punched her. Susie can't figure out what went wrong, but she knows it was her fault. She wants to talk to her friends about it, but Johnny forbade her from seeing them.

Although Johnny and Susie's situation is purely fictional, the scenario, unfortunately, is real for some teens. In a recent Gallup Youth Survey*, about one in every eight teens (12%) say they know someone in their age group who is in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Twelve percent seems high to Andrea Brandt, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in anger management and relationship issues. But, she says, "abusive" can mean many things, from emotional to physical abuse. The word abusive might mean different things to different teens, but none of the interpretations would be positive.

How do teens wind up in these unhealthy relationships? Parents, to some degree, may shoulder some of the blame. "Teens struggle with so many emotions -- and if they come from families that don't want to deal with them, it's possible that they can be vulnerable to having an abusive relationship," Brandt says. "If teens don't know what their options are, they may take out their feelings where they feel a sense of power, and that may be in a relationship."

Boys and Girls

Multiple studies show that boys and girls are about equally likely to report being abused in their relationships, but girls tend to suffer more from emotional and physical abuse. According to Christian Molidor and Richard Tolman's research on gender and contextual factors in adolescent dating violence, female victims are more likely to report being seriously injured and scared, while male victims tend to say the attacks didn't hurt and that they found them funny. This may help explain why, in the Gallup survey, girls (15%) are more likely than boys (9%) to say they know a teen in an abusive relationship -- male respondents may simply have a different threshold for what they consider abusive.

Sexual and Physical Abuse

Gallup also asked teens whether they know of anyone their own age, such as a friend or classmate, who has been either sexually or physically abused in general. Eighteen percent of teens say they know someone who has been sexually abused, and 22% say they know someone who has been physically abused.

In each case, girls are substantially more likely than boys to say they know someone who has suffered abuse. Twenty-six percent of girls say they know someone who has been sexually abused, as do only 11% of boys. In regard to physical abuse, 29% of girls and 16% of boys say they know someone who has been physically abused.

Why the stark differences? FBI statistics show girls are more likely than boys to be the victims of sexual abuse, but the gender difference evaporates when it comes to physical abuse. It may be that boys just aren't telling. According to a Commonwealth Fund survey, 48% of boys who said they had been sexually or physically abused said they didn't tell anyone, compared with 29% of girls.

Bottom Line

Adults are more sophisticated about hiding abusive relationships, Brandt says, but teens drop clues, often to try to get help. She advises teens with friends in an abusive relationship to listen and talk to them directly about what's going on. "Tell them, 'This doesn't feel good to me. I don't want to be around this. It's hurtful to everybody,'" Brandt says. "Teens consider their peers important and their views hold more weight than advice from parents."

That's not to say the adults in teens' lives are powerless to stop the cycle of abuse. "Schools and parents need to talk to their kids about expressing their feelings without being abusive or angry," Brandt says. "Adults need to be role models -- they shouldn't hit kids. They should be open about discussing a whole range of emotions with their teens."

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,028 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted Jan. 17 to Feb. 6, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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