Dating Abuse Can Leave Lasting Scars
Q: I remember some time ago that you answered a question about dating abuse. Could you write about signs that parents should look for if they think their high school or college age child might be in an abusive relationship?
A: February is National Stop Teenage Dating Violence Month. Partner Violence has long been the focus of mental health experts who often see young girls engaging in relationships where they seem to think abuse is a norm rather than a danger sign. Adults who were in abusive relationships as teens often have long-lasting scars that can lead to substance abuse, self-mutilation and low self-esteem.
You have probably had many relationship conversations with your child in the past. You have probably already pointed out healthy and unhealthy relationships from movies, TV and news stories. Hopefully, you’ve been privy to conversations when you both talked about other teens and their dating relationships. All of these conversations create solid footing for continuing to discuss how relationships change in high school and college.
According to 2005 statistics on dating violence from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 9.4 percent of high school students had experienced dating violence. This was defined as a person being hit, hurt, or slapped intentionally by his or her girlfriend or boyfriend. Amongst adults who were queried, one in five women and one in seven men reported experiencing dating violence between the ages of 11 and 17. The long-term effects include having poor grades, becoming abusive themselves, having suicidal thoughts and abusing drugs or alcohol.
Social media, some movies and other aspects of popular culture can encourage or even glorify abuse. Two Stubbenfield, Ohio high school football players will be going to trial on February 13 for allegedly raping a 16-year-old, and then boasting about it on video. Children and youth see images of unhealthy, physically violent relationships such as that of Rihanna and Chris Brown play out almost in real time through social media. Has our culture emotionally grown deaf to the reality that we are all people and not objects to abuse?
There is a need for ongoing education and healthy role modeling for good relationships. TV shows such as Parenthood and reruns of the Gilmore Girls are great examples of how people can work through issues rather than becoming verbally or physically cruel when differences arise.
Dating violence is not an easy subject for people who are involved in these relationships. The victims and the perpetrators both need professional help. Victims especially need support, with group support being critical, even when staying in an abusive relationship. Perpetrators need help in dealing with the expression of their emotions and behaviors.
Dating violence has many possible causes. Very important signs can come in the form of inability to deal with anger and jealousy. People who have a habit of teasing, bullying and treating others with disrespect may also become abusive in relationships. If your child talks about frequent arguments, feeling fearful of the other’s temper, or not feeling safe when angry outbursts occur, or feeling controlled, be sure to follow up.
Listen for your child talking about these and other potential warning signs of being in an abusive dating relationship:
- Acting differently
- Being anxious with calls or texts
- Dropping friends
- Doing less with the family
- Having unexplained bruises or injuries
- Feeling fearful or threatened
We can sometimes see the abusive signs from the behavior of the abuser.
Look for someone who is:
- Controlling of all aspects of a relationship
- Stalking or digitally slandering
- Belittling of others either alone or in a group
- Quick to anger
- Aggressive physically or sexually
- Insensitive to other’s feelings
- Distrustful, jealous, and verbally abusive
If you find that your child is involved in an abusive relationship, you might want to talk to him or her about the process of developing a Safety Plan. Love Is Respect (loveisrespect.org) has an interactive Safety Plan document. You want your child to take responsibility for the relationship and to support his or her ability to either get out or create a healthier situation. We know that telling someone to leave or end a relationship rarely works. Your role is primarily listening and sharing your belief that relationships should be respectful and positive.
Some children have never seen healthy relationships. In fact, some have grown up in destructive relationships full of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Some children have always witnessed conflict and struggle. Your child may need to understand that people with that background may struggle with developing healthy relationships. If your college-age child is in a relationship, find out about his or her significant other’s family history.
Some teens may struggle with leaving hurtful relationships. Some of the reasons might include a concern for the friend, a feeling of responsibility for the problems, fear for the partner’s response to a break up, fear of being out of a relationship, a belief that they might not find anyone else to date. It is important to understand that your child must make this decision, and you need to be accepting of his or her choices and remain supportive. If you remain a safe place to talk and a good listener, then your child can return to you if it is time to re-evaluate the relationship.
Good luck to you both!
In Love and In Danger: A Teen’s Guide to Breaking Free of Abusive Relationships by Barrie Levy