#RedFlags or #RelationshipGoals? - Understanding Teen Dating Abuse

Kristin Mitchell

Kristin Mitchell on her graduation day from St. Joseph's University.

In 2005, Kristin Mitchell was a young woman with a bright, promising future and a beautiful, generous spirit. A recent college graduate, Kristin had a close and communicative relationship with her family and a group of caring and supportive friends who looked out for her.

Fiercely independent, yet deeply empathetic, Kristin had discussed concerns about her relationship with her friends and her father. While there were recent issues she and her boyfriend were facing, she was understanding, forgiving, and felt confident that she could handle the situation.

Three weeks after her graduation, Kristin's boyfriend arrived at her apartment late in the evening to talk about things after he had become possessive and controlling regarding her time with friends.

That night, he stabbed Kristin over 50 times in her kitchen, killing her and leaving her family - and the community - reeling.

Mitchell speaks to a room of Kristin's peers at St. Joseph's University.

Kristin's father, Bill Mitchell, shared his experience of this horrifying ordeal in "When Dating Hurts," an account of Kristin's death and the events that followed. DVCCC was honored to sit down and discuss the book, Kristin, and dating abuse with Mitchell. You can see that interview here.

Mitchell discussed that if Kristin - or even he - had been more aware of the red flags and warning signs of abuse in relationships, this tragedy could have been avoided. In this, Kristin's death left a legacy of awareness and education, waking his community up to the reality of dating violence. If the world could lose someone as beautiful as Kristin to such a violent crime, they would need to pay closer attention. Thus, his mission to reach teens about dating abuse began.

Morgan McCaffery

Morgan McCaffery graduated from Nazareth Academy High School.

In early 2020, Morgan McCaffery, a recent high school graduate, had spent the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic organizing, assembling, and distributing care packages to distribute to local healthcare workers. She was known by friends, family, and her community as extremely generous, "always putting everyone before herself."

In June, Morgan had ended a year-long relationship. Friends and family were aware of this partner and had referred to him as abusive after seeing the two argue often. Shortly after the breakup, Morgan had asked a friend to come over because she had begun receiving threats from her ex-boyfriend and felt afraid.

In July, Morgan received a string of text messages and phone calls from her ex-boyfriend claiming that he was going to change and fix things. He told Morgan he really needed to talk to her and to meet him at a local train station to discuss their relationship.

That night, Morgan's ex-boyfriend stabbed her more than 30 times, killing her and reigniting the conversation about dating abuse in our area.

These mirrored tragedies, occurring fifteen years apart, illustrate how prevalent the issue of teen dating violence still is today.

A mural in tribute to Morgan McCaffery.

Considering physical, sexual, and psychological behaviors,

1 in 3 teens

regardless of gender identity, experience abuse from a dating partner.

What IS Teen Dating Abuse?

Definitions & Common Red Flags

As we at DVCCC know, abuse is a pattern of physical, psychological, sexual, and other behaviors that are used by an individual to establish and maintain power and control over their partner; however, many are unaware of how subtle and nuanced these behaviors can be. Abuse is most successful when it is able to go unnoticed, so abusive individuals work to make sure their behaviors seem rational and their partners feel confused.

We developed a handout that outlines dozens of unhealthy warning signs in relationships and we provide this for the students in every healthy dating program we provide.

When in our classroom sessions with local schools, we facilitate discussions about these behaviors: what their purpose is, how they actually look and feel in real life, and how we can manage them in the healthiest ways possible. When asked to identify some red flags that they have seen or experienced in their own lives, students identified almost 85% of the behaviors outlines on the handout.

Of the red flag behaviors that students identify, the behaviors they seem to witness and experience the most include:

  • Gaslighting - Doing things that hurt your feelings and expecting you to "get over it" or making you feel crazy; often saying "it was just a joke," "you're overreacting," and "it's not that big a deal."

  • Controlling behaviors - Believing that one person should be "in control" of the relationship and using jealousy as a way to control who you spend time with.

  • Crossing sexual boundaries - Pressuring you for sex or attempting to manipulate/guilt you into sexual behaviors by saying things like, "if you really loved me..." and "but all our friends..."

The one red flag that teens see the most, however, is technological abuse.


Technological Abuse:

How Teen Dating Violence is Going Digital

(Data from the Urban Institute)

Digital Abuse is:

Degrading -

using text and other communications to belittle victims over and over again

Embarrassing -

posting or sharing personal, intimate, or humiliating information about victims

Coercive -

pressuring victims to do things, often sexual, that they do not want to do

Controlling -

dominating and regulating social media and other digital presences and activities

Unavoidable -

technology follows us everywhere, so abusers have a way to access their victims nonstop: day and night