How to help your teen avoid the trap of dating abuse
While February is traditionally a month many of us associate with love, it is also a month set aside by the federal government to remind us of the darker side of romance – Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
The statistics, from LoveIsRespect.org (a project of the federal National Domestic Violence Hotline), are disturbing and frightening:
- Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.
- One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
- One in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Clearly it’s important for teens and parents to learn about the signs of teen dating violence and ways to prevent and respond to it.
“Dating violence happens with adults, but teens, in particular, fall into this trap of wanting to be loved and wanting to feel like they have a special relationship with someone,” said Tamara Hillard, LICSW, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Yarmouthport called True North Counseling. From 2000 until 2013, Hillard was the clinical treatment specialist and clinical director of Children’s Cove, the child advocacy center for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
She said abusive behaviors often start with someone being overly possessive, constantly wanting to be in touch by text or phone.
“They will portray it as, ‘I love you so much,’ where they want them to be with them at the exclusion of their friends and family,” she said.
That can be followed by verbal abuse – “you’re stupid, you’re ugly, no one would want you” – and, sometimes, physical violence.
“It never starts out with violence,” she said. “Abusiveness always starts small and grows so slowly that people feel trapped.
Victims of abuse may stay in a relationship because they think they love and understand the abuser and want to help that person, Hillard said.
“Sometimes they feel like they can’t do any better, because the abuser has convinced them they aren’t good enough or smart or pretty enough or thin enough to be loved by someone else,” she said.
Both girls and boys can be victims of an abusive relationship, she said.
“If their moms are in this situation, or their dads, if they see emotional or physical abuse in their homes, it’s hard for them to know what ‘normal’ would be.”
When teens are victims of dating violence, they may be depressed, sad or lonely, she said. They become isolated, spending less time with families and friends.
“Kids, and even adults, will make excuses for the behavior of a boyfriend or girlfriend who people feel are abusive or controlling.”
When someone is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, it can be hard for them to reach out for help, especially for teens, she said.
“It’s very embarrassing, very shaming, to admit that it might be happening. Most likely kids are going to tell other kids. They’re less likely to tell a therapist or a guidance counselor or their parents because they believe they’re going to be judged.”
How to help
It’s important for friends to be supportive, by saying things like, ‘You don’t deserve this,” and offering to go with them to talk to a guidance counselor or someone else, said Hillard.
For parents, it can be difficult to intervene, she said.
“The first thing the parent will say is ‘you should get away from that person or you can’t date them.’ That’s normal because parents want to protect their kids, but it’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Teens are trying to become independent and have control. If you tell them they can’t do something, they’re likely to keep doing it.”
Adults need to talk about the behaviors and not about the person, she said. Tell the teen that it’s not OK to be treated like that and offer to help if they want assistance.
Online resources for help are offered by Cape Cod organizations, including Children’s Cove and Independence House, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Hillard also recommends Break the Cycle and Teen Relationships.
The number one book she rcommends for all women, starting at high-school age, is, “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. “It helps explain how becoming involved in a controlling relationship can happen, and can help women recognize, avoid or get out an abusive relationship,” she said.
Education for prevention
Hillard also urges parents to be proactive by talking to girls and boys about appropriate behaviors before they start dating.
“Parents don’t want to believe that our kids can be in this situation, so we don’t bring it up with them ahead of time,” she said. “Kids are dating at 13, 14 or 15, so 12 or 13 is a good time to talk to them.”
She recommends talking to your children about what a healthy relationship looks like – what they would like to have in a boyfriend or a girlfriend, what kinds of things would be deal-breakers, what kinds of behaviors they would want their friends to avoid.
“Tell them they need to stay away from boys who put them down or talk negatively about women, who doesn’t respect their opinion or their decisions, who push them sexually beyond where they would want to go,” she said. “If it happens once, get away, because it’s not going to get any better.”
If a teenager is in an abusive relationship, they’re more likely to be in that kind of relationship as an adult, Hillard said.
“It continues and continues. If you can help a child get out of the idea that they have to put up with this, that helps the next generation not be born into a situation where the parents are abusive.”
October 2017 Update: A nasty byproduct of an unhealthy relationship, particularly a teen relationship, can be personal or explicit photos/videos. The Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) provides practical advice for anyone facing this scenario. The organization has helped dozens of victims to identify who hosts their images and to file DMCA takedown notices using free tools. Click here to review the guide to removing online images.