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  • Gonzalo Laje

Reducing Teen Dating Violence: How Parents Can Understand Risk & Begin Helping Self-Esteem

Heartbreaking Statistics

Dating violence impacts a significant number of teens: 26% of the women and 15% of the men who report having experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) said their first IPV experience of sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking occurred before they were 18 years old. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and WBMA seeks to educate, equip, and support you in navigating teen dating.

What is Self-Esteem and Why Do We Want It?

Self-esteem, self-confidence, self-concept–these words fly around, often without us knowing what they mean. At times, it can feel like our brains are scrambling to keep up with the latest buzzwords and jargon. Let’s break it down a bit: if you hold someone in great esteem, that means you think highly of them. Self-esteem is when you like, or think highly of yourself. Self-confidence speaks specifically to the degree to which you feel capable of meeting challenges and completing certain tasks. Self-concept is a global term that encompasses how you see yourself–both your identity and your abilities.

Having healthy self-esteem can support self-compassion (treating oneself with kindness and empathy) and, in turn, emotional regulation. When we’re operating from our regulated states, we can more effectively engage in risk assessment and logical reasoning, and we have a larger awareness of long-term consequences. Since the parts of the brain that promote emotional regulation will continue to mature through your teen’s late twenties, building your teen’s self-esteem is another tool in your toolbelt to support their brain development.

Low self-esteem → Dating violence

Your teen having low self-esteem is akin to having the radio on low all day–only, in this case, the noise coming out is thoughts such as, “I’m the worst,” “They’re good at everything and I’m not,” and “I’m never going to get it,” instead of music that helps them live their best life. They’re not consciously tuning into it, but they’re also aware that it’s not quiet. This negative self-talk and low self-esteem are draining.

Teens brains are actively developing however, they are still prone to all-or-nothing thinking (“I’m good at this or I’m not”) and they struggle to believe ‘gray’ truths or things they can’t see or experience in the moment (e.g. “Improving happens slowly; I’m not where I want to be, but in time and with practice, I can get there.”). This can create the perfect storm in which teens get down on themselves, quickly think about how they’ve tried to improve (perhaps not having the awareness of other strategies or systemic barriers), think it can’t get better because they tried and it didn’t work, and so, after a while, they stop trying. When they stop trying, of course, things either become stagnant or regressive, seemingly reinforcing their misguided beliefs that they’re not good enough and never will be.

This concept of learned helplessness–or, giving up on trying because some past experiences have taught you that no matter what you do, nothing will change—is particularly dangerous when teens who are mired in low-self esteem date significant others who have abusive or controlling tendencies. Teens who already have thoughts of, “I’m not attractive,” “No one will ever like me,” or “I’m such a mess” are less likely to question the veracity of their significant other’s controlling statements, especially when they could be misconstrued as caring or intimate (e.g., In response to a message from a few hours ago: “Why didn’t you answer my text? You know I worry about you, right?”; “I don’t wanna hang out with your friends; I want you all to myself.”) In time, the messages may become more clearly controlling and outlandish (“You’re going to wear that? Fine, if you want to be a slut, see who else will keep you around. No one will. You’re trash. You’re lucky I even tolerate you.”). But at that point, the teen’s self-esteem is diminishing (i.e., they increasingly believe the veracity of the false statements) and their sense of learned helplessness is increasing. Breaking up seems scary because what if the significant other is right, and no one else wants them?

What Can You Do to Help Prevent This Pattern?

You can set the groundwork for healthy self-esteem and interpersonal relationships from a young age using these strategies:

  • Model growth mindset by highlighting–not hiding–your own mistakes as stepping stones to greater learning

  • Verbalize your own compassionate self-talk

  • Normalize calling out abuse culture in pop culture when you read stories or watch shows as a family

  • Give your kiddo specific, process-oriented praise

  • Help your child engage in a combination of activities–some that they have mastery in and some which help celebrate learning curves

How Can We Help?

WBMA clinicians offer compassionate, person-centered care. Whether your family would benefit from parent coaching (because caregiving is hard work!), individual teen work (because everyone could benefit from a designated time and place to be accepted and experience regulation), or one of our socialization groups (the gift of a shared experience is unparalleled)–we are here to support you. You are not alone. Call (301-576-6044) or click to schedule a consult today!


- Janelle McCarthy, LGPC Licensed Graduate, Professional Counselor


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