Misconceptions about Dating Violence
February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, which makes it a perfect time to promote safe, healthy relationships to youth.
Teens should know that the term ‘dating violence’ does not refer to the occasional argument or bad mood, which are a normal part of any relationship. Rather, dating violence is when someone tries to control their significant other through abusive behavior, which can be physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal in nature.
We have covered teen dating abuse in previous articles, so we wanted to cover a different aspect of the subject by focusing in this article on three misconceptions:
- Only parents with teen daughters need to discuss this issue.
- My teen is too _____ (smart / independent / stubborn / etc) to let anyone abuse him/her.
- I only need to worry about this when my child is in high school and/or college.
Dating violence is a very important subject that affects so many people. On average, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the US will experience physical violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. People who experience abuse in their relationships are more likely to suffer long-term consequences, including depression, sexual promiscuity, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, eating disorders, and substance abuse. In addition, adolescents in physically or psychologically aggressive dating relationships are more than twice as likely to repeat such damaging relationships as adults. With dating violence so prevalent and so impactful on the well-being of people, it’s important that we work to prevent it. Toward that end, let’s examine each of the misconceptions mentioned above:
Myth 1: Only parents with teen daughters need to discuss this issue.
There’s a common misconception that only girls can be abused and only boys can be abusive. The truth is that boys are also common victims of dating abuse. Typically, boys are more likely to experience emotional and verbal abuse, but the statistics are still pretty amazing. Approximately 1 in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year. Your teenage son needs to learn about the warning signs of teen dating abuse just as much as your teen daughter.
In addition, while all of us would like to think that the teens we love would never abuse someone else, the truth is that we don’t know how a young, inexperienced person will handle the emotional highs and lows of an intimate relationship. Teens need to know what type of behavior is considered abusive so that they don’t fall into that type of behavior. If we explain what healthy relationships are supposed to look like to both girls and boys, we can prevent potential abusers from engaging in abusive behaviors as well as inform potential victims what red flags to notice.
Myth 2: My teen won’t let anyone abuse him/her.
There are two prevailing thoughts among adults that cause us to believe the teens we love will never get involved in an abusive relationship: 1) we believe the personality traits we see in our teen such as intelligence or independence will prohibit them from becoming an abuse victim, and 2) we believe they would simply never allow someone to treat them poorly. The major flaw with these thoughts is that we forget that our children have no experience with dating and they are very influenced by what they see on the media and what their peers are doing.
In fact, 57% of college students say dating violence is difficult to identify. If a college student isn’t sure what constitutes dating abuse, how can we expect a middle or high school student to know.
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 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. It may seem romantic when a boyfriend or girlfriend gets wildly jealous over them. Many a teen has mistaken possessiveness 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. It does not occur to inexperienced teens that their partner wants to control them. 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.
Teens should know the most common early warning signs of dating abuse: displaying jealousy, requesting passwords to their partner’s devices or accounts, and insisting on spending every free moment together.
It is very difficult for people to believe that a seemingly well-adjusted and popular teen is capable of abuse. Our minds are biased to trust people who appear to “have it all together.” However, just because a teen is shy and sensitive does not mean that they can’t become an abuser, and just because a teen is independent and smart does not mean that they can’t become a victim. When teens enter dating relationships, they can act very differently than they would normally because the experience is so new and emotionally intense.
Myth 3: I only need to worry about this when my child is in high school and/or college.
When you hear about dating violence, we tend to think this is an issue for high school students and young adults, but a 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.
- One in six 12-year-olds had experienced physical dating violence in the past six months.
- One in three middle school students had witnessed physical dating violence among their peers in the past.
- One in three 11- to 14-year-olds had been psychologically abused by a dating partner.
- Almost half of middle school students reported being the target of sexual slurs or being touched in an unwanted sexual way.
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. If you have a tween or teen, you should tell your child specific behaviors that are inappropriate and unacceptable for them to do to someone or for someone to do to them.
Teaching Healthy Relationships
We must reiterate that relationships mean respect and that a loving relationship will make you feel better about yourself, not worse. Throughout a child’s life, parents should work on talking about and modeling skills that will help the child develop and maintain healthy relationships, whether they are romantic relationships or just relationships among friends, family and peers. Healthy relationship skills are:
- Respect: showing consideration for the feelings and well-being of the other person.
- Anger Management: dealing with anger in positive, non-violent ways.
- Problem Solving: knowing how to break problems down, find possible solutions, and consider the likely outcomes for each solution.
- Negotiation and Compromise: turning problems into “win-win” situations in which each partner gets some of what he or she wants. Both partners should have equal say in the relationship.
- Assertiveness: asking for what one wants clearly and respectfully, without threats, intimidation, or physical force. This means standing up for one’s own rights (including learning how to say ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right) without treading on the rights of others.
- Acceptance: respecting someone else’s no and allowing the other person to be uniquely their own individual and make their own decisions without criticism.
- Honest Communication: listening to others’ opinions and ideas and sharing your feelings and thoughts with honesty.
- Encouragement: supporting the dreams, choices, other relationships, interests, and success of the other person. This means you do not make someone feel guilty for spending time with family or friends or resent their accomplishments.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the U.S. is: 800-799-7233 (SAFE). Parents should keep this number in case they need it, but also tell your teens where to find it so that they can get help if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you yet. (Only a third of dating abuse victims share their experience with friends and/or family.) That way if a teen feels the need to ask some questions, they can do so anonymously and get the support they need.
In healthy dating relationships, both partners should know each other’s wants, goals, fears and limits. Each person should be able to communicate their needs honestly without fearing their partner’s response. As a parent, it’s important to role model healthy relationships and frequently discuss what healthy relationships look like.