Abuse in Adolescence

The abuse of adolescents is different from the abuse of either children or adults. Some kinds of abuse become more difficult to recognize. There are probably a variety of reasons for this including:

a) risk taking behaviors subsequent to abuse may be seen as developmentally normal,

b) adolescents tend to be stigmatized as victimizers rather than as victims,

c) developmental changes are happening rapidly and changes due to abuse may be under-the-radar for caregivers

d) parents of adolescents may be distracted by their own mid-life issues, and

e) because of increased physical and cognitive skills adolescents may sense new options and ways to protect themselves from abuse. Unfortunately, adolescents may not yet have the capacity to make wise choices about self-care. Just as an example, Runaway Kids becomes a significant issue in adolescence.

Another complicating factor relates to changes in sexual development. It is quite clear that we live in a culture which is very confused about what constitutes sexual abuse of adolescents. If a 30 year old sexually predatory male abuses a 14 year old female, most people recognize that as abuse. This is not always the case. Adolescent females who are abused may have a crush on the abuser, may think the abuse was “an affair”, may feel special or grateful to the abuser. This is often the result of an elaborate ‘grooming ritual’ by which perpetrators prepare their victims.

The confusion is even more complicated for adolescent males who are abused. If a 30 year old sexually predatory female abuses a 14 year old male, there will be people who think the kid ‘got lucky’. One example is related to the case of Silvia Ann Johnson, a 40-year-old from Colorado, who plead guilty to nine felony and two misdemeanor charges that arose from parties she threw for high school kids in 2003 and 2004. At the parties, Johnson not only bought booze for the underage boys she also had sex with five of them. The following comments were made by Tucker Carlson on his nationally syndicated television show (The Situation with Tucker Carlson) on July 26, 2005:

CARLSON: “I think she’s a pretty cool mom, actually. . . .”

CARLSON: “No, but she’s not—look, these are—some of these are 17-year-old boys. She’s not making other people afraid to go out at night. I’m not saying she ought not to be punished. I’m merely saying get a little perspective. Violent criminals, the ones who attack strangers, are the ones who cause society to disintegrate, not Mrs. Johnson, who is clearly just a little batty.”

This minimization of the trauma of abuse can significantly compound the trauma of abused adolescents. See in this regard: Cinematic Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization, Richard Gartner, Gender and Psychoanalysis (1999) Volume 4:253-289. Available online here

Dating Violence

Adolescence is a particularly risky time for dating violence. In the 1997 South Carolina Youth Behavior Risk Survey 9.7% of girls in grades 9 through 12 reported being “beaten up” by a boyfriend, and 21.3% reported being sexually assaulted. Data from the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey for this same age group indicated that the lifetime rate of being “physically hurt” by a dating partner was 15.4% and the lifetime rate of sexual assault was 9.1%. Humphrey and White found that 50% of their sample of college women reported sexual victimization only in adolescence.1


  • Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape
  • Sexual Victimization of College Women
  • Frintner, M., & Rubinson, L., (1993). Acquaintance Rape: The influence of alcohol, fraternity membership and sports team membership, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 19:272-284.
  • Leslie, Kristen J., When Violence is no Stranger: Pastoral Counseling with Survivors of Acquaintance Rape (Fortress Press, 2003).


High School hazing:

  • 48 percent of students who belong to groups reported being subjected to hazing activities.
  • 43 percent reported being subjected to humiliating activities.
  • 30 percent reported performing potentially illegal acts as part of their initiation.

For details see: Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey

Sports hazing:

Over 325,000 athletes at more than 1,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association schools participated in intercollegiate sports during 1998-99. Of these athletes:

  • More than a quarter of a million (250,000+) experienced some form of hazing to join a college athletic team.
  • One in five was subjected to unacceptable and potentially illegal hazing. They were kidnapped, beaten or tied up and abandoned. They were also forced to commit crimes – destroying property, making prank phone calls or harassing others.
  • Half were required to participate in drinking contests or alcohol-related hazing.
  • Two in five consumed alcohol on recruitment visits even before enrolling.
  • Two-thirds were subjected to humiliating hazing, such as being yelled or sworn at, forced to wear embarrassing clothing or forced to deprive oneself of sleep, food or personal hygiene.
  • Only one in five participated exclusively in positive initiations, such as team trips or ropes courses.

For details see: National Survey: Initiation Rites and Athletics for NCAA Sports Teams and stophazing.org


Self-harm behaviors such as cutting are a major issue during adolescence. See the self-harm page elsewhere on this site.

Spiritual Abuse of Adolescents

  • Adolescent attraction to cults. Hunter, Eagan. Adolescence; Fall98, Vol. 33 Issue 131, p709, 6p [Full text available on EBSCO Host: Accession Number: 1290599]
  • When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults, By: Richmond, Lee J., Professional School Counseling; Jun 2004, Vol. 7 Issue 5, p367, 9p [Full text available on EBSCO Host: Accession Number: 13598868]

Also see resources on spiritual abuse at spiritualabuse.com

Female Genital Mutilation (clitoridectomy)

An estimated 135 million of the world’s girls and women have undergone genital mutilation. This might fit better in the section on abuse in childhood since in many countries the average age at cutting is less than 5 years old. See UNICEF report for details:

Honor Killing

  1. Smith, Paige Halt, White, Jacquelyn W., Holland, Lindsay J.,A Longitudinal Perspective on Dating Violence Among Adolescent and College-Age Women, American Journal of Public Health, 00900036, Jul2003, Vol. 93, Issue 7[Full text available on EBSCO Host: Accession Number: 10164746] 

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