When you consider teen dating violence prevention, protecting kids from a physically abusive relationship might come to mind. But often, the abuse starts out more subtly. Like when one young person says to another:
“Why did he like your Instagram pic?”
Or “Don’t wear that outfit.”
These comments may seem like signs of immaturity and insecurity in your teen’s boyfriend or girlfriend, but they could in fact the beginning of dating violence.
“When there is violence in a relationship, it doesn’t happen automatically,” says Rebecca Verkest, a licensed professional counselor at A Client’s Perspective in Clinton Township. “You don’t get into a relationship and all of a sudden you start getting slapped. A lot of times it’s very gradual.”
It can start with comments or popping up unannounced while your teen is out with friends. It takes time for one person to gain power and control.
“It’s a grooming period. It’s a mindset in the abusive partner that they are not in a relationship with you as equals – that they have some form of proprietary control over their partner,” says Stefani Goerlich, a licensed master social worker at the Great Lakes Psychology Group’s Roseville location.
“It starts with simply having the mindset of not ‘you are somebody I am with,’ but ‘you are somebody that I own.'”
The stats on teen dating violence
While much information on dating violence showcases trends among people ages 18-22, notes a November 2018 study from the University of Michigan– which focused on middle and high school students in southeast Michigan.
It found that more than half of female adolescents and more than 1 in 3 males reported sexual violence victimization, while nearly 1 in 4 males and more than 1 in 10 females reported committing acts of sexual violence.
And when it comes to physical abuse like hitting, slapping and pushing, boys are more likely than girls to report being victims, reports a 2018 study by two universities out of Canada.
Abuse gone digital
In addition to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, there has been a rise in digital abuse. Social media has made it easier to stalk. When a teen checks in on Facebook or shares his or her location via Snapchat, it’s simple for the perpetrator to simply show up at that spot.
And that’s only part of the digital problem. “There are more opportunities for control and coercion, because things that would have been a one-on-one conversation in the past, now there’s a paper trail for it,” Goerlich says.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, an abusive boyfriend might say, ‘I saw you talking to that other guy. I don’t want you doing that.’ Now, he doesn’t need to see things physically happening.”
Everything is documented and the abused party has less control, particularly with comments and likes.
Open, direct conversations about healthy relationships should happen early and often. Use TV and movies to start conversations about consent and boundaries.
“When you are watching movies or cartoons where one character forces another to do something, have a conversation with them,” Goerlich says.
Ask: How do you think that person is feeling? Does that seem fair? How would you feel in that situation?
Teaching children how to be assertive and say “no” is also key in teen dating violence prevention, both experts add.
In some families, where a child is seen as an extension of the parents, Goerlich says it’s often stressed that children don’t have a right to say “no.” “You don’t have autonomy over your choices,” she explains. That translates into their relationships later on.
That’s why it’s so important to respect their “stops” – when they ask you to stop doing something to them such as wrestling or tickling – and never force them to hug a family member or friend.
Avoid using corporal punishment, too, she says.
Signs and help
Worried your teen is in a bad situation?
Verkest says to ask yourself: Does my child’s partner seem jealous, possessive, controlling or bossy? Is my child more isolated? Is she irritable or crying more? Are grades dropping? Is he spending less time with friends and more time with the person he is dating?
If you notice changes, use a gentle approach and say, “Hey, I notice you seem very quiet lately. Is everything OK?” Verkest suggests. “Just listen to what they are saying and don’t judge them.”
Illustration by Jay Holladay