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Teenage Dating and Romantic Relationships Risks

While dating can be a way for youth to learn positive relationship skills like mutual respect, trust, honesty, and compromise, it also can present challenges. Youth in relationships with the following features may be at risk: 

  • Dating an older partner. Some older partners may want to have sex before an adolescent is developmentally or emotionally ready. When teenage girls do have sex with an older partner, they may not use contraception and are at a heightened risk of pregnancy. These risks are more common when young teens—particularly young girls—have a sexual relationship with an adult. Among young people ages 18-24, nine percent of girls and five percent of boys reported that they first had sex when they were age 15 or younger and their partner was at least three years older.1 This age difference also can carry legal consequences because there are laws that prohibit sex between minors and adults. The specific laws and definitions differ by state. 
  • Having unrealistic expectations. Sometimes adolescents have idealistic views about relationships. For example, they may expect that relationships always progress in certain stages. First, they hang out with a group of friends; then they meet each other's parents; then they tell people they are a couple; and so forth. Youth may feel disappointed when the reality of their relationships does not match those expectations. One study found the more relationships progressed differently than expected, the more often girls experienced poor mental health, such as severe depression and even suicide attempts.2
  • Dating at an early age. Younger adolescents are still developing their sense of self and learning about their likes, dislikes, and values. Younger adolescents also are more susceptible than older adolescents to peer pressure. Peers play an important role in influencing adolescent decisions about risky behaviors like having sex.3
  • Having sex at an early age. When younger adolescents have sex, they often engage in risky sexual behaviors.4 They also might experience other negative outcomes like depression, substance use, poor romantic relationship quality, and low school participation.5

Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship

Adolescents and caring adults can learn to spot warning signs that a friendship or romantic relationship is unhealthy. Violence is not the only important sign. Unhealthy relationship behaviors can include: 

  • One partner is controlling, makes all the decisions, and tells their partner what they can or cannot do.
  • One partner is hostile, picks fights, or is dishonest.
  • One partner is disrespectful, makes fun of their partner, or crosses boundaries.
  • One partner is completely dependent on the other or loses a sense of their individual identity.
  • One partner intimidates or controls a partner using fear tactics.
  • One partner engages in physical or sexual violence.

Dating Violence 

Some youth find themselves in violent dating relationships. Dating violence can be emotional, physical, or sexual. Dating violence also includes stalking. 

  • Emotional violence is when one partner threatens the other or harms his or her sense of self-worth or self-esteem. Emotional violence includes things like calling names, behaving in a controlling or jealous way, monitoring the other person constantly, shaming, or bullying. Emotional violence also happens when someone keeps the other away from friends and family.  
  • Physical violence is when someone pinches, hits, shoves, slaps, punches, or kicks their partner. 
  • Sexual violence is when someone forces a partner to have sex or engage in sexual activities when he or she does not or cannot consent. Force can be physical or nonphysical. An example of nonphysical violence is when someone threatens to spread rumors if a partner refuses to have sex.
  • Stalking is any form of repeated and unwanted contact that makes a person feel unsafe.

Unfortunately, adolescents experience these forms of violence too often. Among adolescents who dated in the past year:

  • Eight percent reported being hit or physically hurt by a partner.
  • Almost one in three reported being emotionally abused by a partner.
  • Seven percent reported being forced by a partner to have sex or engage in sexual activities—like kissing or unwanted touching.6

When dating violence occurs, it is common for both adolescent partners to be violent. In fact, 84 percent of youth ages 12-18 who survived dating violence also behaved violently. Adolescent boys and girls also experience similar rates of violence. About 69 percent of girls and 69 percent of boys who dated in the past year experienced some type of violence.7,8

Some youth experience violence more than others. For example, lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth are more likely than other students to experience physical violence and sexual assault by a partner. Adolescents with intellectual, emotional, or learning disabilities also experience violence more often than other students. 


Technology gives youth new chances to be stalked by a current or former dating partner. Cyberstalking includes:

  • Unwanted, frightening, or offensive emails, text messages, or instant messages (IMs)
  • Harassment or threats on social media
  • Tracking computer and internet use
  • Using technology such as GPS to track a person


1 Child Trends Databank. (2015). Statutory rape: Sex between young teens and older individuals. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=statutory-rape-sex-between-young-teens-and-older-individuals
2 Soller, B. (2014). Caught in a bad romance: Adolescent romantic relationships and mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 55(1), 56-72.
3 Jeon, K. C., & Goodson, P. (2015). US adolescents' friendship networks and health risk behaviors: a systematic review of studies using social network analysis and Add Health data. PeerJ, 3, e1052.
4 Kaplan, D. L., Jones, E. J., Olson, E. C., & Yunzal‐Butler, C. B. (2013). Early age of first sex and health risk in an urban adolescent population. Journal of School Health, 83(5), 350-356.
5 Collins, W. A., Welsh, D. P., & Furman, W. (2009). Adolescent romantic relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 631-652.
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67(8). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/2017/ss6708_updated.pdf 
7 Taylor, B. & Mumford, E. A. (2016). A national descriptive portrait of adolescent relationship abuse: Results from the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(6), 963-988.
8 Taylor, B. G., Mumford, E. A., & Lu, W. (2016). The national Survey of Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (STRiV). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/250292.pdf
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on March 25, 2019