Dating abuse among teenagers has reached alarming levels, and many parents aren’t taking the necessary steps to help curb it.
“Nearly two-thirds of both boys and girls reported dating violence during their teenage years,” says Amy Bonomi, associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. Bonomi, in conjunction with Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute, wrote a new study that surveyed college students younger than 21 about their dating history from ages 13 to 19.
“One-third of teens who said they were abused reported two or more abusive partners. More than half of teens said they had multiple occurrences of abuse. Two-thirds reported violent victimization.”
Her findings square with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, which show that one in four adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse each year, and one in 10 report being a victim of physical dating abuse.
At least 19 states have laws that encourage or mandate school boards to develop curricula on teen dating violence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s a good start, Bonomi says. But it’s hardly enough.
“Schools, health care providers, parents, peers, church organizations all should be involved in this,” she says.
Dating abuse is defined by the CDC as the physical, sexual or psychological/emotional violence that occurs within a dating relationship. Among the behaviors reported by both genders are yelling, swearing, insults, controlling behavior, pressured sex, stalking, being slapped or hit, and being threatened with violence.
Abuse during the teen years, the CDC says, can lead to lifelong unhealthy relationship practices, disrupt normal development, and lead to chronic mental and physical health conditions in adulthood.
Parents, experts say, play a particularly powerful role in helping their teens avoid abuse and — equally important — escape it.
“Parents need to be involved all the way around — knowing what their kids are doing, but also teaching them necessary skills,” said UCLA-based social worker Barrie Levy, author of “In Love and in Danger: A Teen’s Guide to Breaking Free of Abusive Relationships.”
“Even as kids reach adolescence — 13, 14, 15 — and the importance of their peers becomes more primary, parts of their brains are still developing,” Levy said. “Teenagers don’t have the maturity to think ahead in terms of consequences, good judgment, good decisions, their own safety.”
These are the very skills, though, that could prove critical during the years when most kids start experimenting with relationships.
Here are three critical steps to steer your teen toward healthy dating relationships:
1. Get involved: “Parents are moving further out of their kids’ lives as kids push them away in favor of technology and social networking, and the parents feel less significant and less useful,” says psychotherapist Jill Murray. “So they just sort of give up or take a back seat.”
This, Murray says, is a mistake. As soon as intimate relationships appear on your teen’s horizon, start a dialogue about how he or she is being treated, wants to be treated, sees others being treated.
“Don’t be afraid to ask teens specifically how their relationships are going,” Bonomi says. “Talk to them about how healthy relationships feel to them. How they are treated. What to do if someone is harassing them.”
2. Watch for signs: Don’t wait for signs of physical abuse before stepping in.
“While it’s true that all physically abusive relationships have a history of emotional and verbal abuse, it’s not true that all verbally and emotionally abusive relationships become physical,” Murray said. “The physical signs may never appear, but that doesn’t mean abuse isn’t happening.”
3. Take intelligent action: If you discover your child is being abused, it can be tempting to issue a firm directive, but that’s not always the best approach.
Better to come up with a plan together, Levy said, so that you teach self-protection skills in the process: “I use my observations and my concern to ask direct, clear questions: ‘I notice every time he texts you, you get scared. Are you being hurt in any way? My main goal is that you’re not hurt. I want that to be your goal, too. Let’s think about how we can handle this.’ ”
Physical abuse is a different story. “If you see signs of physical abuse, then your child has been assaulted, and assault is a crime,” Murray says. “That’s when you tell your child, ‘You’ve been assaulted, and I’m calling the police.’ And you absolutely call the police. If your child has bruises or marks, it’s game over.”