EDITOR’S NOTE — Across the nation, children and teens are plagued by a host of escalating tragedies. In this series, we look at several issues facing America’s endangered youth and offer ways you and your church can help care for the next generation. For more stories in this series, click here.
On the morning of July 27, 2020, Gilbert Newton killed his ex-girlfriend, Morgan McCaffery, one month after she broke off their year-long relationship.
He was 19, and she was 18 — a recent high school graduate. After she had broken up with him, she had posted a photo of her new boyfriend on social media. Newton sent her some disturbing text messages, and when she met up with him in a secluded parking lot to discuss their breakup, he stabbed her 30 times in the neck and chest with a knife from his mother’s kitchen.
He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
While their story sounds extreme, it’s not the only one out there like it.
Public health issue
Teen dating violence has become a public health issue in the U.S. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2019 shows that among high school students who reported dating in the 12 months before the survey, about 1 in 12 experienced physical dating violence and about 1 in 12 experienced sexual dating violence.
A JAMA Pediatrics report that same year found that nine out of 10 teens and adolescents killed by a dating partner are girls, and more than 25 percent of those deaths are caused by jealousy, a breakup or resisting the relationship.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the term “dating violence” means violence committed by a person who has been in a romantic or intimate relationship with the victim.
Currently, teen dating violence affects millions of young people in the United States. The violence can be physical, sexual, stalking or psychological aggression and can take place in person or through technology.
According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, about 16 million women and 11 million men reported experiencing contact sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner before they turned 18.
Today’s teens can be more susceptible to dating violence because they lack experience with healthy relationships. Their young age may make them feel powerless and thus more easily controlled and manipulated by an older person. They also may feel social pressure to continue in an unhealthy romantic relationship or not know how to end it.
Teens also may have no parental or church support system to turn to for help or advice.
According to the CDC, teens who experience dating violence are most likely to attempt suicide.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence also reports that these teens are more likely to become pregnant, and the National Institutes of Health say they’re more likely to experience violent relationships as adults.
How to help
So what can your church do to help?
— Promote National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month in your church (February). The national awareness drive helps to raise awareness of the problem of teen dating violence and focuses on the education needed to prevent it before it happens.
— Bring in professionals to speak to your congregation’s teens about healthy dating relationships, communicating personal boundaries, practicing social media safety, understanding healthy self-esteem, setting personal sexual limits and recognizing abusive dating practices.
— Educate youth workers, church leadership staff and members on the visible and hidden warning signs of teen dating abuse and violence. Teach them how to respond to a suspected victim or aggressor.
— Make church a safe place for teens to talk about dating relationships. Help them know the church loves them and will listen to them when they reveal problems.
— Pray with and for your church youth.
— Organize Bible studies that will teach your church’s youth about the definition of genuine love as shown in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, the type of biblical love that is patient, kind, trusting, protecting, persevering and forgiving and that never dishonors others.
— Get church parents involved, teaching them how to deal with possible teen dating violence and how to listen and support their children and take seriously their concerns.
— Provide church leadership and members with resources on how to prevent and respond to teen dating violence. (Youth.gov and Jennifer Ann’s Group are two good resources churches can use. Visit https://youth.gov/youth-topics/teen-dating-violence/prevention and https://jenniferann.org/tdv.htm.)
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
866-331-9474; 866-331-8453 TTY
Domestic Violence 24-Hr Hotline: 847-221-5680
To learn how to promote healthy teen relationships, visit https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/datingmatters/index.htm.
To understand teen dating violence, see livingwatersofhope.org/teenresources.
To learn more about February 2023 National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, visit nationaltoday.com/teen-dating-violence-awareness-month.