When Dating Turns Dangerous: Teen Dating Violence
DVIS defines dating violence as “the physical, sexual or emotional maltreatment of a dating partner for the purpose of gaining control and power over that person.”
(Use of “she” to describe victims and “he” as batterer is only for ease of reading and as that is most often how abuse occurs.) J.L.
Imagine a high school cafeteria filled with kids. See that group of young ladies sharing their lunchtime together? Five of them, pretty, smiling, chatting away about their classes, teachers, parents, boyfriends. Chances are one of them has been hit by her partner. Another one has a boyfriend who constantly texts and phones, sometimes up to 20 times an hour. Is she your daughter, your niece, your sister?
Now look around the room to a group of boys. They talk about the same things: parents, teachers, girlfriends. They’re a good-looking group; they appear to have manners and care about their appearance; they carry a good load of courses. And yet, one of them has pressured his girlfriend into going sexually further than she wanted. Another one becomes so jealous of his girlfriend’s time that he tries to manage who she spends time with and for how long. Is he your son, your nephew, your brother?
This is the face of dating violence in teen America. Research compiled by loveisnotabuse.com shows that one in five girls is hit, slapped or pushed by her partner. One in four girls is texted and phoned incessantly. One in four girls will go further sexually than she wants.
Sarah* was 14 when she accepted an invitation to hang out with a senior boy on whom she “had a huge crush.” She knew him from school and trusted him. She didn’t think anything of driving alone with him. She didn’t suspect anything when he turned into his driveway and another car, full of three other boys she did not know, pulled in behind them. She did not worry when they entered the game room. She thought, “I know him. I’m safe. He’ll protect me.” Sarah did not think anything was wrong as each of the boys left the room in succession. She did not think to worry when they called her to join them in another room. She remembers little else, except that the boy she trusted raped her while the other boys held her down.
“November 12,” Sarah said. “I died that day.”
There is no such thing as a stereotypical abuser or victim. Violent relationships occur in every social, economic, racial, and religious sector. Dating violence is underreported because it is not identified as a crime, victims are ashamed, or don’t know how to access resources.
What’s more, the dating violence problem is felt even more deeply in Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Coalition Against Dating Violence and Sexual Assault (ocadvsa.com). Their website reports that “the rate of dating violence for Oklahoma ninth graders is more than three times the national average, at a rate of 26 percent for Oklahoma freshmen, compared to 8 percent nationwide.”
Angela Mitchell, education coordinator at Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa, has a theory as to why. Oklahoma ranks 9th in the nation, Mitchell said, in men murdering women, most often women they are in relationship with. Children “learn how to have relationships from their environments,” she said.
In other words, children witness the unhealthy relationships of the adults around them and process that behavior as normal. Mitchell said that a typical reason young men begin to abuse is that they “just didn’t know…what a healthy relationship looked like.”
Kids also are exposed to inappropriate relationships in music, on TV and in mainstream media. Take, for example, the recent dating violence issue that arose with two popular musicians, Rhianna and Chris Brown. Mitchell uses current events and music to highlight healthy relationships for teens. Using a language they understand gives her credibility and creates a more comfortable environment for uncomfortable discussions.
Mitchell tailors her violence prevention program to any grade, from elementary on up. DVIS offers the program at no cost to schools in Tulsa and its surrounding area.
If, as Mitchell said, kids learn how to have relationships from those around them, then parents play a major role in raising children who know how to be in healthy relationships.
And there’s the rub. Teens and parents have notoriously poor communication. “Teens aren’t communicating with their parents, and often parents are afraid to ask because of what they might learn,” Mitchell said.
Parents must be ready to talk, Mitchell explained. If teens want to talk but don’t know how to start the conversation, they might hang out without talking, or volunteer to go somewhere with a parent. These signals indicate that parents need to drop everything and give their teens their full attention. Mitchell said to “avoid lectures,” and listen.
One mistake parents make is to threaten to harm anyone who hurts their child. This only perpetuates a violent circle and does little to address core issues about healthy relationships. Parents who suspect their child may be in an unhealthy relationship may feel isolated or unprepared to discuss it with their teen. Mitchell said, “You are not alone. There are resources. Educate yourself and begin to address those issues.”
Finally, closing the technology gap between parents and teens can go a long way toward preventing relationship violence. Mitchell advises parents to be aware of their child’s online activity, chat history, social networking pages and even cell phone use. Some parents “friend” their teens and others access the teen’s pages with their passwords. Either way, kids know their parents see what’s being written.
No one sets out to be a victim or an abuser. Those outside these relationships see the dysfunction and wonder why someone would stay. We forget that the relationship did not begin with violence. What starts as seemingly innocent jealousy may evolve slowly over time until both partners are tangled in a web neither knows how to untangle.
Controlling behavior, extreme jealousy, verbal, physical or sexual abuse does not express love but a quest for power. And yet, research shows that girls report improved relationships once the violence started. These girls also said that their partner’s violence meant that they loved them. As odd as that may sound to someone who’s never experienced it, violence and its partner, defensiveness, take the place of boundaries and respect.
The warning signs can be glaring or subtle. Look for unexplained bruises, pay attention to moodiness and defensiveness. Notice if the child has suddenly stopped seeing regular friends, if she has fallen behind on schoolwork, if she is suddenly hostile or seems afraid.
When parents observe any of these red flags, Mitchell said they need to take steps to stop it immediately. Call DVIS, arrange for counseling, check out the many dating violence websites available. Parents have resources to help their children.
A year after Sarah’s rape, during a chat with a group of friends, she learned that, of the group, another girl had been raped and yet another had been molested by the father of a child she babysat. Later Sarah discovered that the boy who raped her had tried to rape at least one other girl in their school. Sarah got angry and decided to deal with it. With her mom, counseling and DVIS, she got the help she needed.
“I lost everything I knew. Love, innocence, trust,” Sarah said. “I’m getting my innocence back. I’m starting to trust again. I am enjoying life.” It’s been six years since her rape.
*Sarah is not her real name. The students involved in the incident were from a Tulsa area high school.
Dvis.org local help for free 743-5763
Loveisrespect.org nationally known site created for teens by Liz Claiborne foundation
Ocadvsa.com Oklahoma Coalition against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
MADE- Moms and Dads for Education to Stop Teen Dating Abuse.
Athinline.com MTv’s website to address violence and bullying in teens, dedicated especially to digital harassment.