1 out of 3 American teenagers will experience physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner before high school graduation. It’s not a matter of if it’s happening in middle school and high schools; it’s a matter of who is it happening to, and who is an abuser. Additionally, females between the ages of 16-24 are 3 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than at any other age. These alarming statistics apply to any and all definitions of dating: in-person or online, casual or serious. They’re also completely preventable.
Teenagers in Somerset County schools have asked us, “Why don’t adults take our romantic relationships seriously?” They WANT to talk about relationship dynamics. Their curiosity and exploration aren’t going to end. Information is best coming from trusted adults, including family members and professionals that work with them. So, what can you do to help?
First, it’s useful to know the warning signs of an abusive relationship. Simply put, abuse is a pattern of behaviors used to gain power and control over another person in a dating relationship. It can take on many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, financial, verbal, digital, and stalking.
Possible warning signs that your preteen/teen is in an abusive relationship:
Acting nervous or fearful of a romantic partner’s reaction
Being worried when they can’t text or call their partner back immediately
Less interaction with and more isolation from friends and family members
Emphasis on how their partner wants them to dress and/or act
Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
Giving unusual explanations for injuries or bruises
Making excuses and apologizing for their partner’s behavior
Depression and anxiety
There is much prevention work that you can do that takes little effort and demonstrates to preteens and teenagers that you care.
Be OPEN and ATTENTIVE. Set aside time privately with teens to give your undivided attention. Put away phones and converse in an environment you’re both comfortable in.
Assess your own values ahead of time. Teens might ask you questions about how you view relationships. How should people behave when they disagree? How should I make relationship decisions? Be ready to answer potentially tough questions as honestly as possible.
Discuss and model characteristics of healthy relationships. You can have similar conversations with children of all ages to prevent all kinds of violence. Healthy friendships and relationships have nearly identical dynamics, and there is a distinct connection between bullying and teen dating abuse. Partners should remain on equal footing, make major decisions together, respect each other’s boundaries, and lead lives outside of the relationship. Each partner has rights and responsibilities within that relationship, including:
Regularly discuss the media’s relationship portrayals. Since they are new to dating, preteens and teens may have unrealistic expectations of relationships based on overwhelming media influences that emphasize jealousy, control, extreme drama, and stalking behaviors as signs of love.
Monitor social media use and have open discussions about drawing technological boundaries. Constant access to technology blurs lines about acceptable amounts of communication (“textual harassment”). Assuming another’s identity and spreading false rumors or incriminating photos is much easier to do with easy access to social media. An abuser may also take advantage of their partner’s GPS phone tracking.
KEY DISCUSSION POINTS
Love is NOT abuse or violence. It should feel good!
Both partners deserve respect in a dating relationship.
Each person has rights and responsibilities in a relationship.
Just because it’s in the media or happening in a friend group doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Jealousy happens in relationships, but you don’t need to be jealous to show love.
It’s never too late to talk about dating abuse.
If you or someone you know needs assistance or information on domestic violence call or text Safe+Sound Somerset’s 24/7 hotline at 866-685-1122. The hotline provides information, support, and services including safety planning and individual and group counseling for teens and adults. Services are provided free of charge, in a confidential and culturally sensitive environment.
Safe+Sound Somerset is the lead Domestic Violence organization for Somerset County. Request additional information or book a workshop on healthy relationship related topics, by contacting Jessica Skultety, Community Outreach Associate, at 908.359.0003 x214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.