How to help your teen avoid the trap of dating abuse
While February is traditionally a month many of us associate with love, it is also a month set aside by the federal government to remind us of the darker side of romance – Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
The statistics, from LoveIsRespect.org (a project of the federal National Domestic Violence Hotline), are disturbing and frightening:
- Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.
- One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
- One in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Clearly it’s important for teens and parents to learn about the signs of teen dating violence and ways to prevent and respond to it.
“Dating violence happens with adults, but teens, in particular, fall into this trap of wanting to be loved and wanting to feel like they have a special relationship with someone,” said Tamara Hillard, LICSW, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Yarmouthport called True North Counseling. From 2000 until 2013, Hillard was the clinical treatment specialist and clinical director of Children’s Cove, the child advocacy center for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
She said abusive behaviors often start with someone being overly possessive, constantly wanting to be in touch by text or phone.
“They will portray it as, ‘I love you so much,’ where they want them to be with them at the exclusion of their friends and family,” she said.
That can be followed by verbal abuse – “you’re stupid, you’re ugly, no one would want you” – and, sometimes, physical violence.
“It never starts out with violence,” she said. “Abusiveness always starts small and grows so slowly that people feel trapped.
Victims of abuse may stay in a relationship because they think they love and understand the abuser and want to help that person, Hillard said.
“Sometimes they feel like they can’t do any better, because the abuser has convinced them they aren’t good enough or smart or pretty enough or thin enough to be loved by someone else,” she said.
Both girls and boys can be victims of an abusive relationship, she said.
“If their moms are in this situation, or their dads, if they see emotional or physical abuse in their homes, it’s hard for them to know what ‘normal’ would be.”
When teens are victims of dating violence, they may be depressed, sad or lonely, she said. They become isolated, spending less time with families and friends.
“Kids, and even adults, will make excuses for the behavior of a boyfriend or girlfriend who people feel are abusive or controlling.”
When someone is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, it can be hard for them to reach out for help, especially for teens, she said.