Teenagers experience three times the national average of dating abuse

In the digital age, dating abuse is appearing in many hard-to-recognize forms, putting already susceptible teenagers at a higher risk of falling into the cycle of abuse.

October 24, 2018

This article was originally featured in the Oct. 19 print edition of The Hawk Talk.

This year, nearly 1.5 million high school students will be victims of dating abuse, and only a third of them will get help according to LoveIsRespect, an organization dedicated to the prevention of abusive relationships.

What is teen dating abuse?

While “dating abuse” is often associated with physical violence, it is not limited to bruises and broken bones. It appears in many forms as physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, digital or financial abuse. A healthy relationship is not guaranteed simply because a partner does not use physical violence. Dating abuse can be a cruel post on Twitter, constant critical comments or possessive behavior. And it is not an issue isolated to adults; dating abuse is incredibly common among teenagers. According to LoveIsRespect, young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average. And among female victims of intimate partner violence, 94 percent of those age 16 to 19.

Why is it so difficult to recognize?

Dating abuse often falls under the guise of other behavior, which is one reason it is both so prevalent and overlooked.  A victim might make excuses or outright deny an abuser’s behavior — a boyfriend is not manipulative, he just wants what is best; a girlfriend is not possessive or controlling, she just has “trust issues.” Due to a lack of education on the topic, teenagers especially have a tendency to brush off abusive behavior as normal.

“At the time, I was so invested that I didn’t notice the emotional abuse; you’re blinded from all of the pain it’s causing you,” an anonymous Madison student said. “Your entire life starts to revolve around one person. It just became a never-ending cycle that slowly destroyed my mental health. I may not have physical wounds from the relationship, but I definitely had deep psychological casualties that were far harder to heal.”

With an underdeveloped sense of self-esteem, it may also be difficult for teenagers to defend or stick up for themselves if they find themselves in an unhealthy relationship.

“[The abuse] took a heavy toll on my self-esteem and overall confidence,” the same anonymous Madison student said. “Eventually, I was relying on my significant other for recognition and sense of self worth. I allowed them to have control over my emotions, which led me to do what they wanted me to do, in order to please them and therefore get a confidence boost.”

In the new digital age, dating abuse exists in many subtle yet insidious forms. According to Break the Cycle, an organization dedicated to fostering healthy teenage relationships, “checking cell phones, emails or social networks without permission,” is a sign of an abusive relationship. Technology, like Snapmaps and constant social media updates, enables unhealthy behavior and presents it as typical. Stalking simply becomes “checking up” on a significant other. Sharing passwords and sending pictures is often expected. The widespread use of technology makes the age-old excuse of, “but everyone else does it,” even more believable, increasing an abuser’s power over high-school-aged victims who already feel pressure to fit in. Other signs of abuse include“extreme jealousy or insecurity, constant belittling or put-downs, explosive temper, isolation from family and friends, making false accusations, constant mood swings, physically inflicting pain or injuries in any way, possessiveness, telling a partner what they can and cannot do and repeatedly pressuring someone to have sex or engage in sexual acts.”

Why are teens more susceptible to dating abuse?

Often, the hope that a partner will change or return to their previous behavior can persuade a victim to stay in an unhealthy relationship. Denial of abusive and unhealthy behavior is the result of consistent emotional abuse of a victim. Uncertainty surrounding the exact definition of a healthy relationship allows teenagers to easily brush off abusive behaviors as normal, thinking that all relationships include an “overprotective” boyfriend or a “jealous” girlfriend, as they have never had any significant other before. Because of their loose definitions, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse are especially easy for high schoolers to classify as a normal facet of a relationship.

“[A lot of teens] have the mindset that being in a bad relationship is better than not being in a relationship. Some people look at having a significant other as a symbol of status almost,” the anonymous Madison student said. “[But] no one realizes at this age what an abusive relationship is. They don’t see the signs and neither do their peers.”

With the immense pressure social media and cultural norms impose on teenagers to have the perfect life (good grades, friends, a relationship), young people may also find it difficult to leave an unhealthy relationship if they feel as though a relationship bolsters their public image. The social ramifications of leaving an abusive relationship can also be daunting, considering many teenagers date within friend groups and a close community at their school.

How do we break the silence?

Unfortunately, only 33 percent of teenagers who are in an abusive relationship share what they are going through with anyone. According to LoveIsRespect, 77 percent of teenage domestic abuse victims remain silent, even when the consequences become physically and psychologically dangerous.

“Even if you suspect that you or someone else may be in an abusive relationship it is better to talk to someone and get support than to suffer in silence,” Madison psychologist Dr. Dan Charneco said.

“Madison’s school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers are all well-versed in supporting students who are in abusive relationships. We will make sure that each student that comes to us gets the support that they need.”

Are we teaching teens about dating abuse?

The dynamics of dating abuse are not covered in Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) required Family Life Education (FLE) course until the tenth grade, when in reality, such abuse can occur in middle school relationships, too. The 11th grade FLE curriculum covers the “issue of dating abuse and violence to include human trafficking and sexual assault [and] prevention strategies and resources for help and assistance when it is needed,” yet this lesson, oftentimes spanning only several days, may not be enough.  

Considering that the FLE curriculum does continue to cover the issue of dating abuse through 11th and 12th grade, Fairfax County has acknowledged the prevalence of the issue. However, many juniors and seniors do not even take part in an FLE unit as it is taught during AP exams. Furthermore, students only receive a brief, several day overview, which is defined by FCPS as the learning of “elements of healthy dating relationships including affirmative consent, […] elements of unhealthy and abusive dating relationships to include verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse,” and the fact that abuse is never the fault of the victim. Students also learn of risk reduction strategies and respect of boundaries.

Recognition and Resources

In the majority of abusive relationships, victims oftentimes become accustomed to the unhealthy aspects of their situation. The seemingly permanent cycle of bruises or incessant name-calling can become commonplace to those being victimized. It may be difficult to recognize that the relationship one entered has led to an endless trail of eggshells to walk on. Though dating abuse can expand over a duration of years, it can be easier to remove oneself from an unhealthy relationship during its initial stages. Whether it be from a parent, trusted adult, a close friend or a member of Madison’s faculty, it is vital for a student to reach out for help. No one deserves to be in a relationship where they feel unsafe, uncomfortable or unhappy at any time. If reaching out to one of the aforementioned human resources is not possible, there is also a myriad of online resources and hotlines dedicated to helping victims of domestic abuse, including the National Domestic Abuse Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

The hardest step is acknowledging the issue, and the acts of abuse make it difficult for the victim to voice what they are going through. If anyone notices a friend who may be in an unhealthy relationship or is a victim of dating abuse, it is imperative that a trusted adult is contacted for the safety of the victim.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting help,” Charneco said. “Please reach out for support to get yourself or a friend out of an abusive relationship. Even though your abuser may want you to feel alone and helpless, you are not. You are strong and capable and there are many people who can help.”

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