AS A PROFESSIONAL counselor specializing in adolescence, I have worked with many youth who have been the victims of teen dating violence. I have witnessed firsthand the devastating impact dating violence can have on a teen’s emotional, personal and social development. Teen dating violence has been linked to substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts. Whether the abuse is emotional or physical, one thing is certain: The scars can last a lifetime.
Spotlighting this prevalent problem, February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Each year, approximately 1.5 million high school students nationwide will experience dating abuse. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1 in 10 high school students who dated someone in the past 12 months reported being slapped or purposefully hit and physically hurt by a romantic partner. Girls between ages 16 and 24 are more prone to dating violence, but that doesn’t mean boys aren’t victims. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 percent of females and 14 percent of males first experienced dating abuse between the ages of 11 and 17 years.
Dating violence doesn’t just come in the form of physical abuse; it can also be emotional, psychological or sexual. Anyone can be affected, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. Sadly, many teens who are the victims of teen dating violence suffer in silence. Research finds only one-third of these youth ever tell someone about the abuse. Whether they are ashamed, afraid or struggling with guilt, many teens who experience dating violence keep the brutal secret hidden from the very people who could help most: their parents. Sadly, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, most parents – 65.5 percent – reported they never spoke with their child about teen dating violence.
It’s important that teens and parents talk about teen dating violence. But as a parent, would you know if your teen was in an abusive relationship? According to research conducted by Teen Research Unlimited, many parents are unable to detect the signs of dating abuse. In a survey, 82 percent of parents reported feeling confident in their ability to recognize abuse signs, but only 42 percent could accurately identify signs of abuse. With 1 in 3 teens experiencing physical, sexual or emotional dating abuse, it’s important that teens know the characteristics of an abusive relationship and that parents know how to proactively protect their teens.
For Teens: Be Alert to Signs of an Abusive Relationship
Do any of the following unhealthy relationship characteristics describe your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend? If not, do you see these trends among any of your friends’ relationships? Teen dating violence is real and dangerous. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek the help of a trusted adult.
- Moving too fast: One minute you can be on your first date and the next minute you’re being pressured to do something you’re not ready for, like having sex. Abusive partners can coerce you into doing things you don’t want to do. They may pour on the guilt by manipulatively intimating that if you really love or care for them, you’ll do what they want. Be careful to not buy into their deceptive lies.
- Suffocating paranoia: An abusive partner’s paranoia can suck the breath right out of you. That person’s emotional insecurity leads to distrust, which in turn can lead to constant surveillance. If you can’t make a call, text or even hiccup without your boyfriend or girlfriend knowing, then you may have a stalker and not a partner.
- Severing relationships: People who abuse are often extremely jealous and insecure. In an effort to get you all to themselves, they will monopolize your time and push away friends and family. Unfortunately, you may not even realize what’s happening until you’re in over your head.
- Domineering and possessive: Power and control are at the heart of teen dating violence. Abusive partners are very possessive. They will go to great lengths and use any means necessary to keep you close and control you.
- Throwing verbal and physical jabs: Abusive partners prey upon your weaknesses. They use humiliation, put-downs and insults to dig at your feelings of self-worth. As a means to bolster their own confidence, they may use you as a verbal and physical punching bag. Don’t stay in a relationship that tears you down rather than building you up.
For Parents: Watch for These Dating Abuse Signs
Parents, if your gut is telling you something isn’t right with your teen’s relationship, take heed. The following are some tell-tale signs of abuse:
- Unexplainable bumps and bruises: If your teen is constantly making excuses for injuries, and the stories don’t line up with the injury, be suspicious. Keep probing to see what your teen is covering up and who she or he may be trying to protect.
- Depressed and lonely: Is your teen becoming a hermit? Teens thrive on socialization and peer interaction. If your extraverted teen has suddenly become an introvert, that’s reason for concern, since the effects of isolation on an adolescent can be detrimental.
- Drug use: Research finds having an abusive partner is associated a greater likelihood of substance use at the time of abuse. Not only are abusive partners using drugs, but so are victims. Oftentimes victims turn to substances as a means of coping and self-medication.
- Declining grades: A change in school performance can be a good indicator that something is wrong. According to the National Association of School Nurses, students who experienced physical or sexual violence had lower grades; approximately 20 percent had mostly D’s or F’s, while just 6 percent who had mostly A’s. Dating violence has also been associated with truancy and dropping out of school.
- Lack of self-care: Have you noticed your teen’s hygiene, sleep and eating habits are drastically changing? Poor self-care is a sign that something significant is going on in your teen’s life, even if they don’t say anything about it.
- Sneaky and secretive: Is your teen spending an unhealthy amount of time with his girlfriend? Have you caught your teen in lies, such as regarding her whereabouts, calling in sick to work or skipping school? If so, be wary. If you feel your teen is keeping something from you, you’re probably right; 67 percent of teens keep an abusive relationship secret.
With the majority of young teens involved in a relationship, it’s important to take the time to educate them about the dangers of abusive relationships. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed teen dating violence was less likely to be discussed than other teen-related issues, such as academics, drugs, family finances, and sex. Parents, if we don’t speak with our teens about dating violence, who will?