Blame it on a mix of unstable hormones and poor adult influences: A new survey shows that one in six teenagers is the victim of dating abuse. This is manifested by punching, hair pulling, shoving, and throwing things.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that between the ages of 14 and 20, girls and boys may face equal risk when it comes to suffering forms of abuse in their romantic relationships. The data was of particular alarm because teen relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. They stick around, and oftentimes they persist as learned character traits well into adulthood. Violent or scarred teens are far more likely to see those traits endure as they mature, motivating the need for swift action when violence first arises.

Dr. Vijay Singh, the study's lead author and clinical lecturer at U of M, explained in a statement that curbing abusive behavior, and even identifying it to begin with, involves a great deal of diagnostic work. "It's important to think about both genders when trying to identify teen dating violence, especially when there are other conditions we may be trying to assess in the health care setting,” he said.

Singh and his colleagues took data from the emergency department of the University’s Health System, where they tracked incoming patients who needed care for any reason between late 2010 and early 2013. Though they didn’t ask about the gender of the patients’ partners, the researchers believe the findings shed an important light on the ubiquity of teen dating violence. For example, one in five girls reported being the victim or aggressor of dating violence in the last year, and one in eight boys reported the same.

The way the team worded the questions may add a touch of doubt to the survey. It may be the case, for instance, that girls are more often the victims of abuse and boys are the aggressors. All the team can glean from its data is whether both sexes have been involved in it — a critical “or” in the questioning that leaves room for traditional gender lines when it comes to abuse.

On the other hand, involvement at all reveals how widespread violence actually is. It does affect, in some way, both genders. This is truer than ever during the rocky teen years, Singh says, “when young people are figuring out their relationship roles, changing partners more often than adults, and likely not living together."

If the present survey is any evidence of teenagers’ willingness to divulge sensitive information, emergency departments could be useful settings to get first glimpse of a problem. Singh co-authored a follow-up editorial on this issue, highlighting the dangerous slide into full-blown intimate partner violence (IPV), of which one in three women is a victim. While not all girls or boys will internalize their adolescent troubles, they face a greater chance if they don’t acknowledge or report what’s going on.

Even if a teen understands he or she is in an abusive relationship, getting help can feel impossible. And in his research, Singh has found that candor doesn’t come from a question’s simplicity. It comes from its source. "We may ask 'How did you get that injury?,' but often if someone has been a victim of violence, they don't want to disclose that, and it takes repeated questioning in a sensitive way to find out more," he explained. In this way, anonymity in questioning, in the form of a confidential questionnaire, may rule. It could end up being all the privacy a victimized teen needs to release that cry for help.

Source: Singh V, Walton M, Whiteside L, et al. Dating Violence Among Male and Female Youth Seeking Emergency Department Care. Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2014.