Teens can have dangerous relationships, too

  • Published
  • By Paula Spooner
  • Family advocacy outreach manager
February is the month for lovers, but it's also Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.

Setting aside an entire month to boost awareness reflects our growing understanding that violence within relationships often begins during adolescence. In the United States, teens and young women experience the highest rates of relationship violence of any other group. This should be of particular concern for parents, given that adolescence is already such a vulnerable, impressionable time. Abuse in peer relationships can negatively impact development, and teens who experience dating violence may suffer long-term behavioral and health consequences. Adolescents in controlling or violent relationships are also at higher risk for carrying these dangerous and unhealthy patterns into future relationships. Consider these facts:
  • About one in three high school students have been or will be involved in an abusive relationship.
  • Forty percent of teenage girls ages 14 to 17 say they know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.
  • In one study, from 30 to 50 percent of female high school students reported having already experienced teen dating violence.
Over the years, I've talked to teens and parents about their perceptions regarding this issue. On one hand, the candid feedback I hear from teens is sometimes frightening. On the other, some parents are in denial about what is happening in their communities.

For example, teens will admit experiencing abuse, yet will offer numerous reasons why they feel they could never approach their parents for support. Talk to those parents, however, and they will confidently declare that their child is definitely not being victimized. How are they sure? Because their child would most certainly confide in them; an "open door" policy has always been emphasized in their home.

This perceptual disconnect is scary for several reasons. First, the relationship violence that may be taking root flourishes in silence and isolation. It can spiral out of control quickly and unpredictably. Second, most teens don't yet possess the depth of maturity to make wise, safe decisions about their romantic relationships. Last, many adults -- let alone youth - have little knowledge about the availability of resources and support in their communities. This knowledge can become a safety net around a teen who makes the painful decision to flee from a volatile situation, or one whose selfworth has been systematically diminished. Parental denial can be downright dangerous in these circumstances.

I think at least part of the answer to this communication dilemma can be answered by parents in the form of improved education. When we educate ourselves, we begin to consider those admittedly frightening possibilities that ultimately increase our kids' safety. It won't always be easy, but I promise you won't regret it.

For example, if you have been concerned about your teen, think about any changes since becoming involved in a particular relationship, or over a set peri-od of time. Then ask yourself whether your teen:
  • Has had bruises or other physical injuries that are unusual or don't match the explanation of how the injury happened.
  • Has had a change in personality - particularly if an outgoing and upbeat teen has become quiet and withdrawn.
  • Has started to have problems at school.
  • Has stopped hanging out with friends and started spending all free time with a romantic partner.
  • Can't seem to make independent decisions.
  • Has had a sudden change in appearance or clothing style.
  • Has started using drugs or alcohol.
  • Has gotten pregnant. Forced sex can be a part of an abusive relationship.
  • Has started showing signs of stress, such as appetite changes, changes in sleep pattern, changes in mood - particularly being down, depressed, or anxious.
  • Has changed usage patterns of telephone, Internet, cell phone or other technology. Your teen may be harassed, abused or intimidated by a dating partner through any of these technologies.
If you see any of these signs, don't be shy -- talk to your teen about how the relationship is going. Listen, don't judge. If help is needed breaking it off, seek support from family advocacy, the Gulf Coast Women's Center for Non-Violence or a mental health professional. If there are clear signs of abuse and your teen is denying the situation, don't "wait and see" what happens. Immediately contact one of these resources and get advice on what to do next.

Teen dating abuse must be taken seriously. If you suspect that your teen is being abused, get help as soon as possible. Your teen's wellbeing depends on it.

For more information, call family advocacy, 228-376-3457.