In what seems like another lifetime ago, I was a young, enthusiastic “green” clinical social worker working in a domestic violence shelter in the late 90s. It became quickly clear to me as I got to know many of the women seeking assistance, how many of them, now in their late 20s, 30s, 40s and older, most with children, had first experienced dating abuse in adolescence. I was profoundly fascinated, remembering how important my own dating relationships were during that time in my life, and realizing the powerful influence of that developmental stage on my future. Considering that jealousy, possessiveness, passionate arguments, tears, and making up are often depicted as normal in relationships, it’s no wonder that young people often begin their relationship “training” participating in or experiencing abusive behaviors.
Teen dating violence, like adult domestic violence, includes any pattern of behavior used to gain power maintain control over, or hurt one’s partner. Abuse can take many forms and escalates in severity over time. Some common abusive behaviors include:
Verbal and Emotional Abuse: name-calling, screaming, intimidation, humiliation, controlling what partner does, wears, who she/he talks to, stalking, threatening to misuse personal information/blackmail, gaslighting and other forms of manipulation
Digital Abuse: hacking or checking partner’s phone/email/social media accounts without permission or as a way to keep tabs, altering partners passwords or access to accounts, limiting social media or other online activity, sending unwanted (or demanding from partner) images, sharing personal texts with others, posting hurtful or threatening comments online.
Physical Abuse: grabbing, shoving, shaking, trapping from leaving, pulling hair, hitting, spitting, intimidation with indirect violence e.g. punching the wall next to partner,
Sexual Abuse: any unwanted, coerced or force sexual activity, taking or sharing sexual photos or videos without partner’s consent, interfering with partner’s use of birth control or STD protection, coercing or forcing partner to watch pornography
Since 2006, Delaware has recognized February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (Nationally recognized since 2007): a time to raise awareness about something most people don’t give thought to until they find themselves in the midst of a relationship wondering “how do I get out of this?” or until their once outgoing and independent adolescent seems unable to do anything with permission from his/her partner, stops hanging out with friends, or worse, is covering up marks on her/his body.
It is recognized that adolescence itself is a risk factor for dating violence, making all young people vulnerable: there is relative inexperience with relationships while simultaneously seeking independence from adults. For some young people, abusive behavior is unfortunately normalized by experiences in their own homes, but there are many other factors. It is during adolescence that they are forming their identities, highly influenced by peer norms and popular culture, which often provide messages encouraging unhealthy relationships: reality TV, online media, movies, songs, and popular fiction, not to mention the increased focus on the behavior of celebrities and elected officials. In turn, a lot of abusive behaviors are minimized as typical “relationship drama”, a term that often leads to the exposure of abuse when people aren’t comfortable using the word “abuse”.
Without specific intervention, abuse in early dating relationships often lays the foundation for patterns of future domestic violence. And experiencing an abusive relationship in adolescence is linked with increased risk of substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and suicide. However, young people also have tremendous potential for growth and change, especially if provided with opportunities to gain an appropriate understanding of themselves, knowledge about healthy relationships and skills to negotiate relationships non-abusively.
For more information, the National Teen Dating Violence Helpline is available at 1-866-331-9474 or www.loveisrespect.org with live chat and text options. To learn about Delaware initiatives to prevent dating violence, visit www.safeandrespectful.org, www.realrelationshipsde.org or www.dcadv.org.