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Teen Dating Violence: Signs and Solutions

Today is Valentine’s Day—a day for the celebration of lasting love and giddy infatuation—and all across Canada, teenaged couples are indulging in a little romance. Young love has a special magic all its own. According to a survey by Michigan State University, 75% of middle schoolers have been in a relationship by the time they’ve reached eighth grade. Dating, it seems, is as popular among teens as it’s ever been.

There can be, however, a darker side to teen relationships. Inexperienced as they are, they often struggle with basic elements of a romantic relationship. They deal with the same communication problems as adult couples, but often lack the emotional intelligence to solve them. Struggling to manage strong feelings, like jealousy, can also lead to conflict in what might otherwise be an idyllic partnership. When life gets complicated, many teenaged couples are ill-equipped to handle it.

An uncomfortably common result of these issues is dating violence, which the Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines as “the physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional violence within a dating relationship, including stalking.” No one wants to think of young people committing violence against each other, but it’s an unfortunate reality we must all face if we wish to protect victims and prevent further violence. Since roughly 30% of teens say they’ve been a victim of dating violence, this is not an issue we can afford to ignore.

What to Look For

The CDC emphasizes the importance of recognizing warning signs. You’ll find that most signs are identical to those you’d notice in an abusive adult relationship. Watch for these dynamics:

  • The victim loses interest in their favourite activities and suffers other symptoms of depression.
  • The victim frequently apologizes and/or explains away their partner’s behaviour.
  • The perpetrator frequently demeans the victim in front of their peers. The victim has unexplained injuries they’re unwilling to discuss.
  • The victim has an extremely jealous partner, who exhibits controlling behaviour and monitors the victim constantly.
  • The victim resorts to substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviour.

It’s not always easy to spot dating violence, because some cases are less obvious. Indeed, some teen relationships can seem outwardly perfect, especially if the perpetrator is savvy enough to refrain from abusing their partner in any noticeable way. Crystal Sanchez describes her abusive relationship in stages. First, the infatuation, the charm, and the belief that she was special. Then came the subtle abuse, which fooled her into believing “jealousy was adoration.” Finally, her partner began to physically abuse her. She was held at gunpoint, punched into unconsciousness, emotionally manipulated via suicide threats, and nearly killed multiple times because of her partner’s dangerous driving. It took her eight years to free herself, and all throughout that time, no one really suspected what was happening to her because all the abuse took place where her friends and family could not witness it.

Don’t Let Myths Mislead You

In other cases, the abuse is overlooked because several myths surround teen relationships. For example, many believe that teens who come from loving, secure homes would never tolerate abuse and would report it immediately. As one anonymous woman explains, this is far from true. Even her loving, supportive family was unable to shield her from her abusive partner, because they assumed it would never happen to her. She was a strong, confident girl who always said she’d “never let a man hit [her].” Still, she fell for a vulnerable, harmless-seeming boy who convinced her that he was in need of nurturance, and only she could provide it. By the time she realized her relationship was unhealthy, she was in too deep to report it.

The most persistent myth appears to be that victims are always female. As we’ve discussed in the past, men and boys can fall prey to violence and abuse, but rarely report out of fear and shame. For teenaged boys, image is everything, so it can be doubly difficult to come out as a victim of dating violence.

Long-Term Consequences

Dating violence has long-term consequences beyond bruises and humiliation. It is so often a pipeline to repeat victimization, exploitation, and substance abuse. Victims can become permanently isolated from family and friends. They tend to abandon their dreams and goals because of unwanted pregnancy, prolonged drug use, a criminal record (in the perpetrator’s case), and mental health issues. According to research conducted by Cornell University, both victims and perpetrators may also find it impossible to maintain lasting, healthy relationships, because their past has damaged their concept of love and respect.

What can be done?

It turns out that it’s not enough to be alert for warning signs. Prevention needs to be everyone’s ultimate goal. One of the best ways to do this, as Ms. Sanchez points out, is to talk about it. Discuss dating violence with young people early on, even before middle school. Give it a name, explain what it looks like, and assure teens that they are always welcome to come forward. Education isn’t just for potential victims: potential perpetrators also benefit from learning about dating violence, which they may not always understand is unacceptable. Society has a way of tacitly enabling violence, so it’s not guaranteed that they’ll be able to filter these messages effectively.

Dating is a vital part of a teen’s emotional development, and the solution is not to discourage it from occurring. Instead, we must arm them with the tools and knowledge to navigate healthy relationships and exit unhealthy ones. Teach them what to look for, guide them as they grow, and the chances of violence, and its accompanying long-term consequences, will decrease.

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