Middle School Students May Hold the Key to Preventing Teen Dating Violence
When you hear about dating violence, what age do you think is affected? Many of us believe dating abuse is an issue for high school students and young adults, but a new study challenges that misconception. A recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California found that 75% of middle school students had already had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Even more disturbing is the report’s discovery of abuse in these young children. One in six 12-year-olds had experienced physical dating violence in the past six months; one in three study participants had witnessed this type of violence among their peers in the past; one in three 11- to 14-year-olds had been psychologically abused by a partner; and almost half reported being the target of sexual slurs or touched in an unwanted sexual way.
When should we talk to children about dating abuse?
Dating abuse is starting early. That is why many nonprofits and the federal government are refocusing education efforts about dating violence to middle school students. Parents should do the same. If your child is entering middle school, you should take the time to define a healthy relationship (we make suggestions later in this blog). We forget that our children have no experience with dating and their only example is what they see on the media and what their peers are doing. As a nation, we must educate our children early so they do not become an abuser or the victim of abuse.
If you have a tween or teen, you should tell your child specific behaviors (listed below) that are inappropriate and unacceptable for them to do to someone or for someone to do to them. Because teenagers are inexperienced with dating relationships and have romanticized views of love, they often don’t recognize when they are being abused or are abusing someone.
What are the red flags to indicate dating abuse?
The warning signs of dating abuse creep up slowly. No one starts out dating someone they think is likely to become an abuser. At first, everything seems great. The warning signs show up slowly here and there and seem like minor conflicts at first. Add in a teen’s inexperience to the mix and it is easy to see how dating abuse occurs. For example, many teens believe a partner who demands daily phone calls or hourly texts is demonstrating intense love. Young and inexperienced, it does not occur to them that their partner wants to control them. A partner’s efforts to keep their sweetheart all to themselves feels romantic, rather than isolating. One of the most common teenage mistakes leading to dating abuse is confusing possessiveness with love. Abuse creeps in one small step at a time.
To exert power and control, the abuser may:
- Demonstrate extreme jealousy. It may seem romantic when a boyfriend or girlfriend gets wildly jealous over their love interest. Many a teen has mistaken jealousy as a sign of love, caring or flattery. But in real life, inappropriate jealousy or insecurity are warning signs. Healthy, loving relationships do not involve fear, anger or manipulation. Intense jealousy is often one of the first signs an abuser shows.
- Express physical anger. A boyfriend or girlfriend who expresses their anger physically has serious anger management issues. The following are all acts of intimidation and aggression, and are definite warning signs of escalating abuse:
- physically harms their partner,
- threatens to harm their partner,
- throws objects in anger,
- destroys their partner’s homework,
- damages their partner’s possessions, or
- punches walls.
- Humiliate or insult their partner. A healthy relationship does NOT intimidate, insult, demean, harass or attempt to control. Putting someone down in front of their peers, making snide jokes about them, criticizing their friends, clothes, interests, or other values are all signs of abuse. A teen’s partner should build them up, encourage them, value their uniqueness, be excited for their accomplishments or opportunities, and be respectful.
- Limit or control who their partner sees. Many abusers will attempt to control his/her loved one’s behavior, such as dictating who they see, where they go, what school activities they may participate in, or what they wear. This type of pressure is unacceptable. Although the abuser may try to explain their possessiveness as intense care for their partner, in reality, possessiveness often means that the abuser sees their partner as a possession, not as an equal. Isolating their partner is one of the most common signs of abuse. It’s significantly easier to manipulate, control and intimidate a partner if the partner is isolated from their support system, since their friends and family are the most likely to point out troubling behaviors or actually intervene.
- Call or text constantly. It’s one thing to get daily calls or texts from a love interest, but there is a line. Calls and texts become abusive if they have the following characteristics:
- the volume of calls or texts increases to the point that a person feels pressured,
- the content of the texts is demeaning, threatening, or critical,
- the purpose of the calls of texts is to keep tabs on their partner (where they are and who they are with), or
- the abuser becomes angry if their partner does not respond right away.
- Invade privacy. Boyfriends or girlfriends who read their partner’s texts or emails without permission are not being curious. They are invading their partner’s privacy. This type of behavior is likely a warning sign. If the boyfriend or girlfriend uses the information they collect to intimidate, demean, make false accusations or fuel jealous rages, then they are absolutely abusing their partner.
- Make threats. A partner in a healthy relationship would never threaten their partner. Abusers try to control and manipulate their partners to do what they want. They act just like a bully, trying to intimidate their partner, if they do something the abuser dislikes, such as spend time with someone else or attempt to break up with them. Common threats include exposing their partner’s secrets, spreading lies about their partner to peers, or hurting themselves, their partner, or someone close to their partner.
How do I explain a healthy relationship to a child?
Adults should define a healthy relationship for children BEFORE they start dating. We must reiterate that relationships mean respect. Tell tweens and teens:
Your partner should respect you and your individuality, not be excessively jealous and not make you feel guilty when you spend time studying or hanging out with family or friends. In a healthy relationship, you should both be open and honest, and feel safe. Both of you should have equal say and respected boundaries, never feeling pressured to do something you do not want to do. You should be able to communicate your feelings without being afraid of negative consequences. Finally, a good partner also compliments you, encourages you to achieve your goals, supports your choices, and does not resent your accomplishments. A healthy, loving relationship makes a person feel good, not bad.
What are the Effects of Abuse?
Consider how dating abuse can significantly impact the development of a teenager. During adolescence, teens should be learning to accept their body image, develop a personal value system, prepare for a bright future, and develop their own identity. An abuser impedes all of these important steps. Abusers tend to be very critical and insulting, so, for example, a boyfriend calling his girlfriend “fat” will not allow her to develop a positive body image. Abusers are overbearing, pushing their own opinions and preventing their partners from pursuing any interests outside the relationship. A teen’s identity becomes enmeshed with the abuser and their time becomes focused on pleasing solely their partner. They abandon any opinion other than the abuser’s, and they have no time for, and often fear, doing anything that allows them to excel, grow, or prepare for the next phase of their lives. It stunts a teen’s growth.
How can I tell if a teen is in an abusive relationship?
If a teen is in an abusive relationship, he/she might:
- Wear clothing to cover bruises – long sleeves or turtlenecks on warm days;
- Make excuses or apologies for their partner’s behavior;
- Spend excessive time answering cell phone calls or text messages from the partner;
- Lose confidence in themselves and begin to have difficulty making decisions;
- Stop spending time with close friends and family;
- Begin to receive poor/failing grades or stop participating in school activities;
- Start using alcohol or drugs.
What if the teen doesn’t want to break-up with the abuser?
An abusive relationship can take a huge toll on a teen’s mental and physical health. Help the teen understand the effects of abuse, listed above. Be understanding – their partner has probably become a big part of their life. They will likely miss him/her or feel lonely and sad after the break up. Encourage them to confide in someone they trust for support while they adjust and to get involved in some other activities.
You can learn more at one of our previous blogs:
- Teen Dating 101
- Teen Dating: How To Break-Up
- Parents Giving Dating Advice to Teens
- Teen Dating Violence
- Healthy Relationships: Avoiding Teen Dating Violence
Or, visit these valuable resources: