Dating abuse among teenagers has reached alarming levels, and many parents aren’t taking the necessary steps to help curb it, experts say.
Amy Bonomi, in conjunction with Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute, wrote a new study that surveyed college students younger than 21 about their dating history from ages 13 to 19.
“Nearly two-thirds of both boys and girls reported dating violence during their teenage years,” says Ms. Bonomi, associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “One-third of teens who said they were abused reported two or more abusive partners. More than half of teens said they had multiple occurrences of abuse. Two-thirds reported violent victimization.”
Her findings square with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, which show 1 in 4 adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse each year, and 1 in 10 report being a victim of physical dating abuse.
At least 19 states have laws that encourage or mandate school boards to develop curricula on teen dating violence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s a good start, Ms. Bonomi says. But it’s hardly enough.
“Schools, health care providers, parents, peers, church organizations all should be involved in this,” she says.
Dating abuse is defined by the CDC as the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence that occurs within a dating relationship. Among the behaviors reported by both males and females are yelling, swearing, insults, controlling behavior, pressured sex, stalking, being slapped or hit, and being threatened with violence.
Abuse during the teen years, the CDC says, can lead to lifelong unhealthy relationship practices, disrupt normal development, and lead to chronic mental and physical health conditions in adulthood.
Parents, experts say, play a particularly powerful role in helping their teens avoid abuse — and, equally important — escape it.
“Parents need to be involved all the way around — knowing what their kids are doing, but also teaching them necessary skills,” says UCLA-based social worker Barrie Levy, author of In Love and In Danger: A Teen’s Guide to Breaking Free of Abusive Relationships (Seal Press).
“Even as kids reach adolescence — 13, 14, 15 — and the importance of their peers becomes more primary, parts of their brains are still developing,” Ms. Levy says. “Teenagers don’t have the maturity to think ahead in terms of consequences, good judgment, good decisions, their own safety.”
These are the very skills, though, that could prove critical during the years when most kids start experimenting with relationships. (Seventy-two percent of eighth- and ninth-graders report “dating,” according to the CDC.)
Here are three critical steps to steer your teen toward healthy dating relationships:
1. GET INVOLVED: “Parents are moving further out of their kids lives as kids push them away in favor of technology and social networking, and the parents feel less significant and less useful,” says psychotherapist Jill Murray, author of But He Never Hit Me: The Devastating Cost of Non-Physical Abuse to Girls and Women (iUniverse). “They feel like they’re insignificant because their kids’ lives are moving so fast. So they just sort of give up or take a back seat.”
This, Ms. Murray says, is a grave mistake.
“I see a lot of teens in my practice, and I lecture to more than 100,000 teens a year,” she says. “They want their parents to be involved in their lives and they want their parents to be significant and they don’t want to disappoint their parents.”
As soon as intimate relationships appear on your teen’s horizon, start a dialogue about how he or she is being treated, wants to be treated, sees others being treated.
“Don’t be afraid to ask teens specifically how their relationships are going,” Ms. Bonomi says. “Talk to them about how healthy relationships feel to them. How they are treated. What to do if someone is harassing them.”
Remember, they’re new at this and may not know what’s normal and healthy.
“The most important thing you can teach them is that love is a behavior, rather than a feeling,” Ms. Murray says. “Love is the way somebody treats you all the time, not just when they feel like it.
“You can point out behaviors and ask if they think that’s loving: This person calls you an idiot. Is that loving? This person puts you down. Is that loving? This person gets mad when you see your friends. Is that loving?
“When you’re a teen, you just hear, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ and your heart is making all the decisions instead of your head,” Ms. Murray says. “When you ... start introducing logic, then you get them thinking, rather than just feeling.”
The dialogue could make a critical difference when your child is deciding whether to enter — or exit — a potentially dangerous relationship.
2. WATCH FOR SIGNS: Don’t wait for signs of physical abuse before stepping in.
“While it’s true that all physically abusive relationships have a history of emotional and verbal abuse, it’s not true that all verbally and emotionally abusive relationships become physical,” Ms. Murray says. “The physical signs may never appear, but that doesn’t mean abuse isn’t happening.”
Significant deviations from the way your child used to act should give you particular pause. A few of the more common signs:
- Dropping activities or hobbies because the boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t want attention diverted from the relationship.
- Wearing markedly different clothing. “Especially if a boyfriend is very jealous, a girl will start dressing in very baggy clothes or wearing less makeup because she’s afraid of looking sexy,” Ms. Levy says.
- Seeing friends less often. “Friends your child has had for years … aren’t coming around anymore,” Ms. Murray says. “This is especially true with girls who have become increasingly abusive and aggressive toward boyfriends. They don’t want [the boys] to see their friends.”
- Your child underperforms at school or other endeavors. “If the boyfriend isn’t having a lot of success in his life, he may try to interfere with her success and tell her to stop doing well and make her feel bad for doing well,” Ms. Levy says.
- You witness alarmingly frequent check-ins. “The boyfriend or girlfriend is doing a lot of checking up, intruding on time with friends and family, following, stalking, sending 10 texts that all have to be answered immediately,” Ms. Levy says.
- Your child’s overall mood changes dramatically. “Your child is suddenly angry or moody a lot,” Ms. Murray says. “She starts taking the blame for everything. Feels like a bad person a lot. Shows extreme jealousy.”
3. TAKE INTELLIGENT ACTION: If you discover your child is being abused, it can be tempting to issue a firm directive, but that’s not always the best approach.
“You don’t want to demand a breakup, because you force your child into a Romeo and Juliet situation,” Ms. Murray says. “Your child has been made to feel by the abuser that he or she is the only person who understands the boyfriend or girlfriend. Often they say, ‘I’d kill myself if you ever left me.’
“Abuse is about power and control,” Ms. Murray says. “If you force a breakup, you just become another controlling person in their life and you haven’t taught them any life skills or decision-making skills. The next relationship might be even worse.”
Better to come up with a plan together, Ms. Levy says, so that you teach self-protection skills in the process: “I use my observations and my concern to ask direct, clear questions: ‘I notice every time he texts you, you get scared. Are you being hurt in any way? My main goal is that you’re not hurt. I want that to be your goal too. Let’s think about how we can handle this.’”
Physical abuse is a different story. “If you see signs of physical abuse then your child has been assaulted, and assault is a crime,” Ms. Murray says. “That’s when you tell your child, ‘You’ve been assaulted, and I’m calling the police.’ And you absolutely call the police. If your child has bruises or marks … it’s game over.”
Regardless of the nature of the abuse, try to avoid an overly emotional reaction. You don’t want your teen to feel blamed or ashamed.
“Respond with respect and concern and openness to hearing what your teen has to tell you, even if it’s upsetting,” Ms. Levy says. “You might say, ‘I know you might be afraid I’ll be upset, but I promise to watch how I react. I really want to hear about this.’”