If you’re like me, you think of February as the most romantic of months. This month brings us Valentine’s Day, the most popular day of the year for engagements. With all these expressions of love and affection, it’s hard not to get caught up in all the hearts and flowers.
While healthy, loving relationships are something we should always celebrate, this month is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. This awareness initiative gives us an opportunity to start some important conversations about the devastating experiences adolescents can have when their earliest and most formative relationships include abuse.
For too many vulnerable teenagers, dating abuse is a devastating chapter in their transition to adulthood. Yet according to LoveisRespect.org, a nationally recognized resource on teen dating abuse, some 81 percent of parents and caregivers don’t think abuse is an issue in the lives of their teens.
The Centers for Disease Control has identified some disturbing statistics on teen dating violence that should make us all take pause.
- An estimated 1 in 11 teenage girls and 1 in 15 teenage boys have experienced some form of physical dating violence during the last year.
- About 1 in 8 female and 1 in 26 male high school students have experienced some kind of sexual dating violence in the last year.
- Some 26 percent of teenage girls have experienced some form of sexual abuse in a dating relationship.
- Sexual minority groups, such as teens who identify as LBGTQ and those who are part of racial and ethnic minorities, experience teen dating violence at rates higher than their white, heterosexual peers.
Even as someone who works victims of abuse of all ages on a daily basis, I find these numbers rather shocking in their scope. As a grandmother of teenagers, I realize it’s hard to imagine the young people in our lives being harmed by people who claim to like or love them.
So, it’s critically important to recognize that unhealthy teen relationships can and do slip under our fine-tuned parental radar. We can start to help by paying more attention to warning signs of dating abuse such as:
- Depression, falling grades and substance abuse.
- Romantic partners who seek to control our kids’ social lives, friend groups and how they spend their time.
- Unexplained bruises and other injuries.
- Expressing fear of their dating partner and their reactions.
- An unwillingness to go out without their partner or their partner’s approval.
- Constant monitoring of social media and other stalking-type behaviors.
Speaking up and intervening when we suspect unhealthy relationships is imperative because teens who’ve experienced relationship abuse have higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide.
Teens whose early relationships include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse receive a message that abuse is a normal part of romance. While that’s not true, believing that can lead them to a lifetime of unhealthy relationships.
Recently, at The Center for Family Justice we worked with a young woman who was just 22 but had been in a relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend since she was 15. His abuse began as what she initially viewed as “little things” like telling her what to wear and humiliating her with negative comments about her appearance. That emotional abuse escalated, over time, into the extreme verbal and physical abuse that brought her to us for crisis and supportive services.
Last week, we all heard the devastating news of a murder-suicide in New London, where the victim was an 18-year-old young woman who police there say was shot and killed by her live-in boyfriend.
While this is a serious and complicated problem, there are some simple things we can all do to send a message to the adolescents in our lives about the dynamics of healthy relationships.
- Talk to your teens about things like consent, respect, and your expectations for how they be treated in a relationship.
- Practice what you preach. Speak to and treat your own partners with the respect they deserve.
- Call out negative behaviors you see in the media, music, pop culture, the community, and their peer groups. These are all teachable moments.
- Be respectful of this transformative time in their lives. Kids are going to experiment. Know that but continue to reinforce your expectations. Be sensitive, but firm.
- Pay attention to what’s happening on their social media feeds as well as those of their peers. So much abuse today begins in the digital space.
- Empower your kids to stand up for their friends and speak up when they witness the unhealthy treatment of their peers. Teach them to say, “That’s not what love looks like.”
Finally, if you know a teen who is experiencing abuse in their lives The Center for Family Justice offers free, confidential services to adults and children impacted by abuse. You can call our 24/7 crisis hotlines at 203-384-9559 for issues related to dating and domestic abuse and 203-333-2233 for sexual violence.
—Debra A. Greenwood is the President & CEO of The Center for Family Justice, which provides crisis and supportive services to victims of domestic and sexual violence in the communities of Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull.