By: Michelle Wagner, Breaking Through Task Force Member
Every February, Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month provides parents, educators and community members with an opportunity to increase awareness among young people of not only the warning signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship – but also of what it means to be in a healthy, loving one.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), teen dating violence is all too common. CDC statistics in 2021 indicate that nearly 1 and 11 female teens and 1 in 14 male teens report having experienced physical dating violence in the past two years. Roughly 1 in 8 female high school students and 1 in 26 of their male counterparts have experienced sexual dating violence during that same period.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) estimates one in three teens in the United States experiences some kind of abuse from someone they’re romantically involved with – and about 43 percent of college women report experiencing abusive dating behaviors. Additionally, students who identify as LGBTQ+ experience even higher rates of dating violence.
Along with physical and sexual violence, teen dating violence can also include behaviors such as psychological aggression and stalking. And unfortunately, teens often excuse some behaviors, such as teasing and name-calling, as normal. Butl according to the CDC website, “these behaviors can become abusive and develop into serious forms of violence.”
Oftentimes, teens don’t report unhealthy behaviors because they are afraid to tell family and friends. And alarmingly, teen dating violence is a problem that far too few parents are aware of. The NDVH estimates that just over 80 percent of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue, or say that they are unsure if it is an issue.
Helping young people recognize the red flags of an unhealthy and abusive relationship as well as the qualities that make up a healthy one is essential when it comes to preventing teen dating violence.
A project of the NDVH, Love is Respect offers 24/7 information, support and advocacy for young people ages 13 to 26 who have questions or concerns about their romantic relationships. Its website stresses that “just because there’s no physical abuse in your relationship doesn’t mean that it’s healthy or that abuse isn’t occurring in other forms.”
Red flags of abuse or an unhealthy relationship include having a partner who:
Checks your phone, email or social media accounts without your permission.
Puts down, insults or humiliates you, whether it’s when you are alone, online or in front of others.
Isolates you from friends or family, either physically, financially or emotionally.
Exhibits extreme jealousy and insecurity.
Has explosive outbursts, temper or mood swings.
Causes any form of physical harm.
Possessiveness or controlling behaviors such as trying to control what you do, what you wear or who you spend time with.
Doesn’t communicate his or her feelings or is inconsiderate, disrespectful or distrustful.
Pressures you to have sex or go further sexually than you want to.
Gets angry with you if you don’t drop everything for him or her.
Wants you to quit an activity, even though they love it.
Ever raises a hand at you when angry, like he or she is about to hit you.
How can teens gauge whether they are in a healthy relationship? Here are some key signs:
You and your partner respect one another and each other’s individuality.
You feel safe being open and honest with one another. You trust each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt.
You and your partner support each other and your decisions, even though you may not always agree.
You and your partner have equal say and boundaries that are respected.
You and your partner understand and respect each other’s need to spend time with family and friends.
You are comfortable sharing your feelings without being afraid of negative consequences.
You don’t ever feel pressured or forced to engage in sexual activity you don’t want..
You and your partner settle disagreements peacefully and with respect.
It’s important for parents to have open communication with teens and encourage them to engage in conversations about healthy relationships and dating violence. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website, “it’s never too early or too late” to teach about self respect or respect for others.
If you suspect that your teenager is involved with an abusive partner, allow them an opportunity to talk and share their story, without judging them. Tell them you are concerned for their safety and when having a conversation, talk about their partner’s behaviors rather than the person. Avoid ultimatums such as “if you don’t break up with him, you are grounded” and come up with next steps together, such as identifying safe options.
Finally, become familiar with the signs that may indicate your child is involved in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. These include sudden changes in appearance, diet or sleeping habits, avoiding friends and family, becoming secretive or withdrawn, sudden changes in mood, apologizing for or making excuses for their partner, checking cell phone constantly and responding immediately to their partner, and unexplained bruises, scratches or marks.