She won’t go into the details of the abuse. The sweet words that turned sour, the slaps, the bites, the pushes that turned into punches, the sexual assault. She can’t. Not even anonymously. The pain is too fresh, the healing process too precious, and she is still too fragile. She’d like to still believe in love, but the she can’t forget the scratches, the blood, and the bruises. He wasn’t famous and neither is she. She’s part of the estimated one in three teens who has been abused in an intimate relationship. She could be your daughter, niece, cousin, neighbor, mentee, or student. She could have been you.
No one talks about teen dating violence, because few know how. Organizations like Break the Cycle and Love Is Respect, national nonprofits that focus exclusively on teen dating violence, hope to change that.
“Dating abuse occurs any time one partner tries to exhibit force, control and/or plays minds games over the other partner,” says Britni Henderson, a 21-year old senior at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and a member of the Love is Respect youth advisory board. While most people readily recognize the physical assaults, dating abuse is not always physical, and most often does not start out that way. There is usually a pattern of controlling behaviors that, over time, lead to life-threatening situations.
“Violence happens on a spectrum,” says Tonya J. Turner, staff attorney for Break the Cycle. “No one walks up to you and punches you in the face. Usually, they are quite charming and they win you over and it’s a kind of slow erosion.” With teens, abuse may start with a few subtle put downs, critiques of clothing choices, friends, and even family. Abusers may then start to isolate their partners from other people and insist that they spend all of their free time together. For many teens, who may be dealing with a first love, a first sexual encounter, or even dating a partner much older than themselves, their inexperience and youth are preyed upon and exploited.
Recognizing the warning signs before abuse happens can mean the difference between life and death. It is particularly important that adults acknowledge the seriousness of teen relationships and pay attention to the ways in which they interact with each other. Many young people tend to confuse being possessive and controlling with being in love. So, look out for partners who: constantly check in and need to know where his significant other is and who she is with at all times, shows up to places uninvited, does not respect the need for time alone or boundaries, displays extreme jealousy and constantly accuses his partner of cheating; exhibits big mood swings and abuses technolog: monitoring a partner’s activity online, following what a partner posts to see where she is and what she’s doing, demanding access to account passwords, checking cell phones, texting all the time, etc.
According to the statistics, one in three teens will experience abuse in a dating relationship, and those are just the numbers for teens who report the abuse. The numbers are the same for teens in same-sex relationships. A natural distrust of adults and authority figures, coupled with the desire to figure out things for themselves, makes many teens turn to their peers, who may not know any more than they do, for advice. Teens may also fear getting a person that they care about in trouble and/or feel that she is partly responsible for the attack.
Turner, who has worked with Break the Cycle for four years now, and leads trainings on dating abuse, has noticed that there are specific challenges that keep our teens silent. Blacks and Latinos may distrust the police, fear immigration, or hold a belief that faith will help them overcome anything. Some abusers use threats to make their victims stay, threatening to out a gay or lesbian teen to his/her family, and even threatening the safety of young children involved. For some teens, quite frankly, who have a host of other social issues to deal with, dealing with abuse might take a back seat to having a place to sleep for the night or food to eat for that day.
There is help for teens in trouble, but their legal rights vary from state to state. In Washington, D.C. a new law was recently passed which allows victims of teen dating violence as young as 12 years old to get civil protection orders. But this is rare. In some states, teens have limited legal options and in other states, they don’t have any. Break the Cycle, based in Washington, D.C. provides legal services free of charge. They also have information on their website regarding the quality of services available for teen abuse survivors, by state. And in partnership with Love is Respect, there is a national dating violence hotline where teens can all and speak to trained peers familiar with the laws.
When dealing with a teen in an abusive relationship, the tendency is to urge him/her to exit that relationship immediately, however, Turner urges caution when dealing with an abused teen. “The hardest things for people to understand about abusive relationships is that it needs to be the victim that finds it within themselves to get out,” she says. “And leaving immediately is not always the right solution.” Teens in the abusive relationships are better able to assess their situations and determine whether or not they can safely get out. So experts recommended developing a safety plan, an individualized document that both empowers the teen and provides a roadmap to safety.
“We’re all susceptible to being manipulated by someone we care about,” Turner says. “So, it’s important for everyone to check into their relationships from time to time.”
When speaking to her clients, Turner likens the spectrum to the difference between have a cold and getting pneumonia. “We all can get a cold or flu, it’s not the end of the world, we check in at that point. You go to the doctor, take a pill, and you’re healthy again,” she says. “But if you wait until you get pneumonia, it gets worse and you can actually die.”