Dr. Julie Allison Sheds Light on What Teen Dating Violence Looks Like

Many teens will be involved in romantic relationships in adolescence. This, however, does not mean all relationships are healthy. Teen dating violence has become an epidemic in the United States, affecting millions of youth every year. Dating violence does not discriminate and is a public health issue that can continue beyond adolescence.

What does teen dating violence look like? What are the signs educators and parents need to look for? What should teens do if they are a victim of an abusive relationship? We asked these questions and more to Dr. Julie Allison, Professor and Director of the Office of Violence Response and Prevention at Pittsburg State University. Along with being a university professor, Julie is an advocate and researcher in regard to sexual assault and domestic violence. While attending graduate school, she co-wrote a book, Rape: The Misunderstood Crime. Julie has served on the board of a safe house for more than 20 years.

Continue reading to learn more from Julie as she sheds light on the warning signs of dating violence and abusive personalities, the importance of an educator’s role in identifying abusive relationships, and advice and resources for teen victims of dating violence.

Can you share how you started working in violence prevention?

“I was writing an instruction manual for my major advisor, Dr. Lawrence S. Wrightman, on psychology and the legal system and there was a chapter about rape. I had known friends who have been involved in domestic violence relationships and had also experienced rape within those relationships. That’s not uncommon. I became passionate about doing something about this. At that point, my area of research became sexual assault and interpersonal violence within intimate relationships.”

What does dating violence look like in teen relationships?

“It looks somewhat similar to relationships in adults, except there is a social comparison in teenage relationships. What I mean by this is that teenagers are involved in relationships, and they also see other relationships, and compare their relationship to the others that they see. This makes it particularly toxic for those who are in abusive relationships because what is seen in public, especially for those in high school and middle school, is not what is seen in private. The comparison looks really good in public.

The perpetrator of abuse can be more charming than those who don’t abuse. So, it looks like the perfect relationship. By comparison, people may think that others have such a great relationship, but behind the scenes it is very different.”

What are the warning signs that someone is a victim of dating violence?

“I think the first warning sign is the charm. That [the relationship] was so perfect. Isolation is another warning sign. There is something called ‘teaming’ where the teen thinks ‘it’s us against the world, everyone is out to get us.’ Anytime someone says something negative about the relationship or starts to question that it may not be a great idea to be in that relationship, the teen will use that as ammunition to say, ‘they just want to break us up.’ That teaming component feels good, especially for teenagers. The red flags often get missed.”

What signs do parents need to look for?

“It’s really hard for parents to know because kids are so good at hiding it. Isolation is a big warning sign, in the sense that [the perpetrator] will say something along the lines of ‘I just love you so much and I want to spend all my time with you.’ It’s flattering and feels good to the teenager involved in the relationship, until it isn’t good. This is mostly shown behind closed doors and is very different in the public eye.”

What are the signs educators should be on the lookout for?

“When it comes to educators, they are going to be able to see the charming side of those who can be abusive. That is a red flag for educators. If they are thinking that a particular student is so amazing, that there is nothing wrong with them, and they think how can you question their relationship? Because of this, it’s important that they do question the relationship.

The student who is the target of abuse is likely to be tired a lot. They will not be depressed 100% of the time, but they will go through a cycle of emotions that is unpredictable. Some days will be great, and some days will be awful. How they express this in a classroom will be different, but educators should look for those changes in behavior.”

Find out more warning signs that educators should look out for in our webinar featuring Dr. Julie Allison, “Dating Violence: What Educators Need to Know.”

What are some reasons why teen victims of abuse don’t seek help from adults?

“It’s just hard to seek help, generally. Some of the reasons include that they are questioning their own reality. I worked with a teenager who was helping her boyfriend put groceries away for his family, and she put the eggs on the wrong shelf. As a result, her boyfriend took the eggs and aggressively threw them across the room. She knew it was disproportionate to the situation, but she still blamed herself. So that’s a big reason for not telling adults about abuse, because the victim is questioning their own reality.

The other part is that reality is not always their reality, and that they don’t want to break up. They want to stay together with that person. They think that if they share concerns, that their parents are going to get involved. This is also a very difficult situation for parents. Sometimes they see it, and sometimes they don’t. If they do see it and start to ask questions, the motivation to protect the relationship can become more intense. For parents, I would encourage them to always listen to their gut.”

What are some of the warning signs of an abusive personality?

“There are many of them. One is unrealistic expectations about what the relationship should be. Oftentimes perpetrators believe that time + attention = love, which is an impossible expectation to fulfill. Other warning signs include jealousy, talking badly about the gender for which they are attracted to, and not having respect.”

What are some of the motivators and/or life factors that may cause someone to be abusive in a relationship?

“Dorthy Stucky Halley and her husband, Steve Halley, have done some extensive work looking at the primary motivators of abuse. One is entitlement, which is when the perpetrator thinks they are entitled to privileges because of who they are. Ironically enough, oftentimes, perpetrators have a lot of power, respect, and status in their community. They feel entitled to special treatment and to getting away with things that they shouldn’t be doing.

Survival-based behavior is also predominant. This is the belief that as a partner ‘I am supposed to be like this, and you are supposed to be like that, and if you’re not, then that’s not OK.’ They want to ‘follow the rules’ of society in a way that fulfills their role as a partner— as a man, woman, non-binary, or gender fluid. They have expectations in their mind that they feel they must follow and that others must go along with as well.

In a few cases, some motivators for abuse are sadistic-based behaviors, meaning someone enjoys being abusive. These are the cases that are the rarest, but the ones we hear about the most. They are the ones who create the stereotype of an abusive person, which leaves us in the community less likely to identify the red flags because the other types of motivators are much more subtle.”

How important is an educator’s role in identifying dating violence?

“I think educators have the opportunity and responsibility to pay attention and notice. They are going to see things that parents aren’t going to have the opportunity to see. Their friends are going to see things in school or outside of school that parents aren’t going to be privy to, but educators might be able to notice. Teachers can’t be the end-all be-all saver of these kids, but they can be a safe place for them to talk.”

What advice do you have for teens who are experiencing relationship abuse?

“First of all, know that you don’t deserve it. You didn’t do anything to be treated in an abusive way and you deserve complete respect. The abuse is not likely to stop. It’s likely to get worse. Don’t question yourself or your reality. If you think you’re being treated in a way that you don’t deserve, getting out of the relationship is the best thing you can do.

There are resources at the community, state, and national level that can help. However, I think teachers and friends are always people to turn to for help. The dynamics of friendship with someone who is involved in any type of abusive relationship can be tough because teachers and friends want to be there for someone who may go to them in the good times and distance themselves during the bad times. This can be frustrating for the friends who want to offer their support. My advice to the friends is to keep being supportive and not to give up because their friend won’t leave an unhealthy relationship. The average person breaks up seven times before they get out of a relationship. Friends can get tired, and it’s OK to be tired, but don’t stop being there for a friend who is being abused.

To the friends of the perpetrators — confront them. Let them know that what they are doing is not OK. Perhaps you can accompany them in social situations so that you can keep an eye on the person. It’s not their responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen, but they have a lot of power.”

What advice do you have for educators or school staff that identify a student that is in an abusive relationship?

“I want to refer back to the program Dating Violence Awareness for Educators. Be open, be a calm and safe presence, and don’t negate the red flags. If you see a red flag, don’t try to make excuses for it. Instead, find a way to approach it. I think this program for educators really does a great job teaching how to do that.”

Learn more about Dating Violence Awareness for Educators

For more information and statistics on teen dating violence, check out our recent webinar guided by Dr. Julie Allison and Kognito Product Manager Nadia Stamp, “Dating Violence: What Educators Need to Know.” To learn more about Dating Violence Awareness for Educators, contact us or request an interactive demo today to see the power of virtual humans.

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