The upcoming month of February is a time when we prognosticate with Pennsylvania’s famous groundhog, celebrate love and romance, commemorate the importance of black history in our country, and salute our presidential leaders. Lesser known is the annual observance of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
As a therapist who has specialized in working with young people around their relationships, I am no longer surprised by the prevalence of abusive behaviors nor the normalization and tolerance that accompanies it. The term that is often used to describe such relationships is “teen dating violence”, which includes any pattern of behavior used in a dating relationship to gain power or maintain control over a dating partner. Abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal or sexual, and like adult domestic violence, escalates in severity over time.
Extreme jealousy or possessiveness
Intrusiveness (e.g. checking partner’s phone, texts, email, social media)
Isolation from friends, family, activities
Change in appearance or dress
Adolescence in itself is a risk factor for dating violence, making all young people vulnerable. During this developmental stage, there is relative inexperience with dating relationships, hence a lot of trial and error, while simultaneously seeking independence from adults. They are forming their identity, highly influenced by peer norms; norms focused on being part of a couple, especially for young women; norms encouraging them to “prove” their love; norms telling young men that they should “wear the pants in the relationship”, norms supporting jealousy and possessiveness as signs of love; In other words, norms encouraging abusive relationships.
Adolescent relationships serve as preparation for adult relationships, and therefore, can impact more than the high school years. Without intervention, abuse in early dating relationships often lays the foundation for adult domestic violence. Experiencing an abusive relationship early on can have other ramifications: higher risk of substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and suicide. Yet, young people also have tremendous potential for growth and change, especially if provided with the appropriate knowledge and skills to negotiate conflict non-abusively. With these tools, adolescents can experience such benefits of healthy relationships as trust, acceptance, love, and support.
Prevention is powerful. Parents have the ability to model healthy (or unhealthy) relationships for their children. They significantly influence how children learn to treat other people when they don’t get their way, how they come to view men and women and their roles, and what respect looks, sounds and feels like. However, we all have a role in preventing dating violence: Schools, students and faculty can establish a culture of respect and provide continuing health education that teaches skills necessary for healthy relationships; prevention extends to messages in the media; and finally, prevention is powerful when peers and bystanders refuse to tolerate abuse in any form.
For more information, an excellent resource is the National Teen Dating Violence Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or www.loveisrespect.org. To learn about Delaware initiatives to prevent dating violence or to get involved, visit www.safeandrespectful.org, www.realrelationshipsde.org or www.dcadv.org.