February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month
As a mom of two teenagers (actually a teenager and a 21 year-old… hmm when did this happen?) I, like many parents, would like to think that teen dating is carefree and fun (occasionally momentarily heartbreaking), but that issues like dating violence and date rape don’t happen in my hometown. I’m not alone. In a national study, 81% of parents state they do not believe teen dating violence is an issue or don’t know of it being an issue. Unfortunately for me, my rose colored glasses aren’t much use in the fluorescent glare of a workplace that helps victims of intimate partner violence. Through the work I do I’m well aware that:
§ 1 in 3 teens in a serious relationship report that they’ve been concerned about being hurt physically by a boyfriend or girlfriend… and 20% of these teens have already been hit, pushed or slapped by their boyfriend or girlfriend.
§ 29% of girls have been pressured to engage in sexual acts when they didn’t want to do so and 23% said d they’ve gone further sexually than they wanted as a result of this pressure.
§ The average age for sexual assault is 18 ½ years old.
What’s worse is that victims of dating violence tend to minimize or normalize their experience. Dating violence is a pattern of controlling behavior that may include physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, isolation, threats and intimidation, and harassment through technology. While these behaviors persist and can escalate over time, victims may not realize the behavior is abusive. In fact some of the early warning signs of abuse can be mistaken those first stages of love: wanting to spend all your time with the other person, calling or texting continually just to check in, expressing jealously when guys or girls take an interest in ‘your’ loved one.
The question I’m most often asked is, “Why do people stay in abusive relationships?” While there are many answers to that question, a very basic one is “they didn’t see this coming.” I often say, “If I went out on a date and came home with a black eye, I wouldn’t date that person again.” That’s not how it happens. The process is far more insidious; the abuser is often kind, helpful and flattering in the beginning and only in time, bit by bit, does the criticism, intimidation, isolation, pathological jealously become apparent.
So what are some of the early red flags that may indicate a teen is in an abusive relationship?
- Changes in appearance or behaviors. Have they started dressing just to please the boyfriend or girlfriend? Have they given up hobbies or activities they enjoyed before the relationship?
- Spending ALL their time with the boyfriend or girlfriend. Has the teen stopped spending time with friends? Does the new boyfriend or girlfriend criticize the teens past friendships or cause problems when the teen is with others? Social isolation is a common technique to make a partner dependent.
- Having to be accountable to the new boyfriend or girlfriend. Does the new friend constantly call or text to check up on where the teen is or whom he/she is with?
- Physical injuries. Are there unexplained bruises, injuries or is the teen physically hurting him/herself?
- Emotional Abuse. Does the new partner embarrass, humiliate, belittle or otherwise demean the teen in front of others?
What’s a parent to do?
Here are a few helpful ways to talk to your teen courtesy of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence:
· Talk to teens about dating. Let them know what characteristics are parts of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Let them know you are willing to have an open conversation with them about their concerns so they will be more likely to come to you in the future if they have problems.
· Try not to be judgmental. Limit expressing your opinions or passing judgment on your teen’s decisions or they may be less likely to come to you if something goes wrong. Try not to provide an immediate solution or explanations for what has happened because that can also seem judgmental to your teen.
· Listen and then respond when talking to your teen about their relationships. This helps them feel like they are being heard and also gives you the opportunity to give them the best information possible for their situation
· Validate your teen. Let them know that you believe they have been abused by their partner and that is not their fault for what has happened.
· Let your teen know there is support. Let your teen know you are there for them to turn to but there are also outside resources they can reach out to such as school social workers or guidance counselors.
Talking to your teen about dating violence can be a challenging subject, especially if you have concerns they are in an unhealthy relationship. If you have questions on how to approach the subject with your teen or would like to find out more about our services, please feel free to contact Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis services at (518) 583-0280 or our 24-hour hotline at (518) 584-8188.