Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

When Love Hurts: Talking about dating violence with teens

When I was about 15, I remember a close friend of mine suddenly becoming withdrawn. Her usual cheerful and social nature changed to a quiet, secretive one. She wouldn’t change clothes in front of anyone in the locker room, but went into the bathroom stall. She seemed to always be with her new boyfriend, and didn’t have time for any of us anymore. It took a few months before I realized what was happening. This boy, who was a couple of years older than her, had started controlling her emotionally, and ended up hurting her physically. Once a few of us realized what was happening, we were able to get an adult involved and eventually get our friend to break up with this boy. I will never forget watching my friend change from a happy young teenager to a scared, nervous girl in the course of a few months.

The recent story of Ray Rice and his physical abuse of his wife has hit a nerve in our culture and gotten us talking about violence in romantic relationships. This is something that we need to be discussing with the tweens and teens in our lives.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011) nearly 10% of high school student report being physically assaulted by their romantic partner. The incidents are even higher in urban areas of low socio-economic status, with 30% of boys and 28% of girls experiencing violence from their partner. Even though men such as Ray Rice have been headlined as perpetrators, it’s important to know that girls can also be physically violent. One of the greatest risks for a teen to become involved in dating violence is fostering attitudes that accept dating violence, such as the jokey references in a series of tweets about Chris Brown after he was accused of beating up Rihanna several years ago. It is imperative that boys and girls learn that it is never okay to commit a violent act against a partner nor to be subjected to one. Adolescents who are the victims of dating violence are also more likely to be depressed, abuse alcohol, and to have other emotional problems.

Adolescent dating is a time for learning about how to be in a relationship. Teens are building their knowledge and experience as a romantic partner and learning to negotiate boundaries and demands in close relationships. This is a very important time for them to learn that violence, either emotional or physical, is not a healthy part of intimacy. Here are some strategies for parents and other adults to use to prevent dating violence:

  • Communicate about and model healthy relationships. Adolescents are new at romantic relationships, and if their first romantic partner behaves in a certain way, they may consider that “normal.” Talk about what it means to be respectful to a partner with specifics: using respectful language that doesn’t hurt or offend, regarding their needs and wants as just as important as your own, keeping physical touch mutual at all times, never engaging in physical behaviors that hurt the other. For example, one of my middle school friends mentioned that her boyfriend was mad at her for not coming to his sporting activity even though she missed it to attend her own. I asked her a few questions to get her thinking about what that said about his respect for her and her activities. Try to get kids thinking about mutuality in all areas, not just physically, in order to help them build a healthy view of relationships.
  • Provide clear ideas about boundaries for healthy relationships. Adults should make it clear that force can be emotional as well as physical. If a partner is trying to manipulate or make you do something they want you to, emotionally or physically, it’s time to slow things down and talk to a trusted adult. Their romantic partner is learning how to negotiate relationships too, so role-playing with your child and giving them some specific words to say to set boundaries can be really helpful. So, for my friend in the example above, she might say, “I think it’s strange that you expected me to be at your game when I was at my own game. I see my game as just as important as yours. What do you think? Would you really have wanted me to get in trouble from my coach and miss my game to sit in the stands and watch yours?” Once your child is prepared to ask that question and set some boundaries, then you can talk about how to measure the response. Depending on how the young man responded to my friend’s boundary setting, she may or may not decide that she wants to continue dating him.
  • Monitor your child. Parental monitoring can be a huge preventative factor for dating violence. Know who your child is with and where they are, and pay attention to mood changes. If a child starts to withdraw emotionally, suddenly starts trying to cover parts of their body, seems more secretive, or is having trouble eating or sleeping, you need to get very involved in trying to figure out what’s going on. Many adolescents won’t know what to do if their romantic partner starts to hurt them. They’ll be embarrassed and ashamed. They are more likely to confide in friends than parents, so talking with your kids about how to help a friend in this situation is critical. Rule number one, get a trusted adult involved.

It is critical for adolescents who are learning about building healthy relationships to understand what those look like. Model, discuss, and provide guidance on what is involved in respectful, mutual relationships. And don’t be afraid to get involved if you suspect that your child or a friend is the victim of dating violence.

Ali, B., Swahn, M. & Hamberger, M. (2011). Attitudes affecting physical dating violence perpetuation and victimization: Findings from adolescent in high-risk urban communities. Violence and Victims, 26, 669-683.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). YRBSS: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/data/index.htm

Wekerle, C. & Tanaka, M. (2010). Adolescent dating violence and violence prevention: An opportunity to support healthy outcomes. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 19,  68-898.

2 comments on “When Love Hurts: Talking about dating violence with teens

  1. wearemorethan
    September 18, 2014

    I am very pleased that you didn’t single out what parents of daughters should do to keep them from being in abusive relationships. I appreciate that you instead kept the focus on modeling and monitoring behavior for all teens. When I was in high school, in the 90’s an expert came to school and gave a seminar to a room full of girls about how not to be victims of abuse.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 18, 2014

      Thanks for noticing! I think it’s vital that we acknowledge that all our kids need guidance in romantic relationships.

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