Protecting Teens from Abusive Relationships and Dating Violence
Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.
It is a sad fact that today's youth are much more likely to be exposed to violence and abuse than youth of previous generations: dating and acquaintance rape, relationship violence, bullying, gang activity, and exposure to graphic violent images in video games and on the Internet. Often, it is quite difficult for parents to intervene in these complex situations but there are several steps that parents can take to limit their children's exposure to these dangers.
Abusive Relationships and Dating Violence
Approximately 9.8% of youth reported an experience of physical dating violence in the last year, and 7.4% of youth report having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse in the last year (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2010). Dating and romantic relationships are characterized by emotional and physical intimacy. Because both emotional and physical intimacy occur in private between two people, violence and abuse can remain well hidden and may continue over a long period of time. The cloak of secrecy is further reinforced because victims of dating and relationship violence often feel powerless, frightened, and ashamed; therefore, they are reluctant to report their experiences because they may feel they are somehow at fault; or they may have reasonable fears that the violence will escalate if they disclose their experiences to another person. Dating and relationship violence includes any type of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse that occurs between dating partners. Abusers seek to gain control over their victims by manipulating or dominating them. At its core, dating and relationship violence is about one person misusing power to control another person.
Anyone, of any age or gender, can become a victim of dating and relationship violence and dating violence is reported in both heterosexual and same-sex couples. Dating violence includes both direct acts of violence and abuse, as well as indirect violence and abuse such threatening to harm the victim or threatening to harm someone or something they care about (siblings, pets, possessions, etc.) Both direct and indirect violence and abuse serve to intimidate and control the victim. Examples of physical abuse include pushing, shoving, slapping, kicking, knocking down, hitting and punching; or gestures that threaten to perform these behaviors (e.g. raising a hand up as if to strike someone). Sexual abuse and assault include any unwanted sexual contact or sexual coercion. Emotional abuse may include yelling, screaming, name-calling, belittling or demeaning a person with words or gestures. Emotional abuse is particularly insidious because it not as overt as other forms of abuse. Parents should make certain their youth (both boys and girls) have a clear understanding of what behaviors are completely unacceptable in any relationship. Furthermore, youth should be taught to have zero tolerance for any abusive, coercive, or disrespectful language or behavior, whether it is directly or indirectly threatening, and should immediately seek help to terminate any relationship with anyone who subjects them to such an experience. Perpetrators manipulate their victims by belittling and demeaning them. Over time, victims begin to adopt a self-image that is consistent with statements made by their abuser; i.e., they come to see themselves as worthless and deserving of abuse. Therefore, it is important for youth to recognize this type of behavior early in a relationship and to exit that relationship promptly.
Abusive partners will usually try to isolate victims from their friends and family in order to avoid detection, and to gain greater power and control over their victims. Abusers employ many methods to isolate victims, some very subtle. An abuser may directly tell their partner they may not socialize with someone, or the abuser may become so unpleasant when their victim spends time with others that eventually the victim "chooses" not to spend time with other people. For instance, an abuser may demand the victim always tell them where they are, and may insist upon an immediate response to their phone calls, texts, and other communications while they are with other people. Eventually meeting these demands becomes so unpleasant or embarrassing that the victim gradually discontinues contact with other people. Another way abusers isolate their victims is to monopolize their time by demanding the victim spend more and more time with them instead of socializing with others, doing homework, going to work, or doing other activities. Perpetrators also control and to manipulate their partners by threatening to hurt themselves or to kill themselves if the partner leaves the relationship. Over time, victims begin to feel powerless and helpless to change the situation or their self-esteem has sunk so low that they begin to believe their abuser is the only person that could ever "love" them; and, lacking contact with other healthy people they do not receive any evidence to the contrary.
There are several warning signs parents should pay attention to that could indicate that their adolescent may be a victim of dating violence. Any unexplainable bruises, cuts, abrasions, or other injuries can indicate a youth is experiencing some form of physical violence. Furthermore, if a youth starts to spend excessive amount of time with their boyfriend or girlfriend and they seem worried or anxious about being out of contact with that partner, this might indicate that they are feeling pressured to stay in contact with them. If parents notice that their teen is spending more and more time with a dating or romantic partner, and simultaneously the teen begins to either drop out of activities that were previously enjoyed, spends far less time with other friends, or starts to struggle academically, these signs may be cause for concern. Furthermore, any drastic change in a teen's mood or personality around the same time a relationship with a significant-other intensifies can also be a warning sign.
If parents suspect that their adolescent child is experiencing an abusive romantic relationship, they should talk to their child about their concerns in a manner that demonstrates love and concern while encouraging their child to talk about any troubling aspects of their relationship with their partner. Parents should mention specific changes or warning signs they have noticed and explain why those signs cause concern. As mentioned, victims of relationship abuse and dating violence are often reluctant to talk about their experiences because they may feel powerless, ashamed, or frightened and may deny there is any cause for concern, or may become angry and upset with their parents for raising the topic. When parents initiate a discussion with their teen about their concerns, they must communicate they understand there is nothing their son or daughter could do to prevent the abuse or assault.
Parents will need to work hard to control their own emotions in order to effectively help their child. Sometimes a child may have made a poor decision, such as agreeing to meet someone from an online chat room and parents may feel angry their child did something so foolish and broke the rules. In other cases parents may be very tempted to get angry at the perpetrator or relationship partner. However, these reactions do not serve to comfort the victim, and can actually worsen the situation causing the teen to feel even more ashamed, or more frightened. Instead, parents need to remain calm so that their children feel safe, loved, and respected. For youth in ongoing abusive relationships it can be very difficult for youth to leave these relationships without risking further emotional, social, or physical harm.
Parents will probably want to find a therapist or counselor who specializes in teen dating violence to work with their child and the entire family to provide support and guidance during this difficult time. A professional consultation is usually recommended in order to assist the youth to safely end the relationship, and to begin the healing process. If parents have immediate concerns for their child's physical safety, they may wish to consider contacting the police to file a complaint and to petition for a restraining order against the offender. However, parents are cautioned to consult a professional before taking this step. Restraining orders have a limited effect on many offenders and violence against the victim may escalate as a result. Whenever possible, steps to protect the teen's safety should be taken before considering this action. For more information or support, parents or youth can call the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline at 1-866-331-9474 or www.loveisrespect.org.
There are several ways parents can help to protect their children from becoming involved in an abusive relationship; however, it is important to emphasize it is neither the parents' nor child's fault if such a relationship occurs. Primarily, parents should model respectful and loving relationships for their youth. This includes the parents' relationships with other adults as well as modeling loving and respectful relationships with each of their children. Parents should also examine their own marriage or dating relationships and make sure they demonstrate encouragement, support, safety, and respect within these relationships. If parents recognize that they may be in an abusive relationship, they can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-3224 in order to get help and support and to obtain safe housing for themselves and their children. Parents can also educate their young adolescents about healthy relationships, what is important in dating relationships, what to look for in dating relationships, and what warning signs to look for.