The recognition of emotional abuse: adolescents' responses to warning signs in romantic relationships

Lauren Francis, Dominic Pearson

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Emotional abuse in relationships is widespread and can have serious detrimental effects on subsequent functioning. Despite this, and despite the knowledge that adolescents aged 16-19 are most likely to fall victim to abuse in romantic relationships when compared to older age groups, research surrounding warning signs of abuse and adolescents’ responses to them has been lacking. This study explored adolescents’ attitudes towards, and responses to, warning signs of emotional abuse. Males and females aged 16-19 (N = 171) from two high schools and one University completed a purpose-designed questionnaire containing 20 statements of warning sign behaviours. They then answered questions measuring perceived acceptability of these behaviours and proposed responses to them. Warning signs were separated into four domains: denigration, personal degradation, public degradation, and verbal aggression. As expected participants on average proposed passive or vague responses to warning signs in all four domains. Warning sign behaviours that involved personal degradation were perceived to be the least acceptable of all behaviours, but even ‘risk aware’ individuals still lacked knowledge of effective responses to warning signs. Females perceived warning sign behaviours to be the least acceptable and proposed the most assertive responses. However the response protectiveness effect was reversed in those aged 19, with females proposing the least assertive responses. Although adolescents are aware of what constitutes unacceptable relationship behaviours, they still lack knowledge of the appropriate ways to respond to warning signs in order to discourage future abusive relationship behaviours. The implications of these findings for interventions and practical training for adolescents to prevent abuse are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8289-8313
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Issue number17-18
Early online date22 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021


  • adolescents
  • dating violence
  • intimate partner violence
  • perceptions of domestic violence
  • psychological abuse
  • youth violence


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