Friday, August 26, 2016

Back to School Lessons – Teen Relationships 101



Autumn is my favorite time of year, not because of colorful leaves and pumpkin-spice lattes (although they are pretty awesome), but because it’s back-to-school time!   During the school year, I provide teen dating violence education to teens in high schools, middle schools, colleges, youth-serving agencies, and church groups.  Within classroom and group settings, I teach learning activities and lead conversations about what makes a good dating relationship.   Working with teens is challenging, thought-provoking, often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and never dull, but I love it because I get to make a difference in young people’s lives.

Freshman (or 7th grade) jitters should include the normal stuff - navigating a new school, remembering that locker combination, meeting new friends   – but not dealing with an abusive relationship!  However, the teen years are when most people experience their first serious relationships and, for 1.5 million high school students nationwide, those relationships include emotional and physical abuse.  College students also experience dating violence, with 43% of college women reporting violent and abusive dating partners.  College-level dating violence is also more likely to include digital dating abuse and college students often feel isolated from support systems that can protect against abusive partners.

Teen dating violence can be the gateway to lifelong abuse.  As they begin dating, teens learn about adult relationships.  If that first partner is abusive, a teen can learn the wrong messages about love.  The two most dangerous dating messages for teens are: 1) jealousy equals love, and 2) if my partner hits me (out of jealousy), he/she must really love me.  Abusers use these beliefs to perpetuate patterns of emotional, physical, and sexual violence towards their partners under the guise of love.  The end results are staggering.  The highest rates of intimate partner violence for women in the United States occur between the ages of 16-24, a rate of about one in three.  The severity of intimate partner violence is often greater when the abuse pattern begins in adolescence.  The cycle of abuse can put a teen at higher lifetime risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, STDs, teen pregnancy, suicide, and death (at the hands of the abuser).   

Abusers use a methodical process of jealousy, manipulation, and control to isolate their partners from support systems so that friends, family, and others are unaware of what is happening.  Most teens suffer in silence, with only 33% telling someone about the abuse.   Often, family and friends don’t recognize warning signs until the abuse becomes severe.  By this time, the teen may react to parental intervention with denial and resistance, even when they truly are terrified of the partner.   At the same time, the abuser may escalate the abuse and threats towards the teen and family as his/her control is challenged.  In many cases, abusive teen relationships end when parents seek an order of protection on behalf of their teen to stop the violence, threats, and stalking by the abuser.

In spite of the sobering statistics on teen dating violence, there is hope.  Prevention education works.  Although stereotyped as know-it-alls who are uninterested in any information from adults, teens do want respectful relationships and do listen when they are treated with respect.  Dove offers accurate information on healthy teen relationships vs. domestic violence in a fun, engaging, interactive, and non-judgmental way.   The purpose of Dove’s presentations is prevention - giving teens the information and tools to set boundaries with others, share mutually respectful relationships, plan for safety, and recognize and avoid abusive relationships.  For those teens already involved in abusive relationships, Dove offers counseling, personal advocacy, help with orders of protection, and parental support.    

Working with teens is so rewarding!  I love watching the learning process in the classroom as teens hear, debate, and absorb information on respectful relationships.  However, it’s after class when the hard work begins and teens reach out with their own private concerns:  a disclosure of pain inflicted by a verbally abusive girlfriend; a question about how to end a violent relationship with a long-term boyfriend; a group of teens expressing concern about a friend’s safety; or a teen disclosing abuse at home.  Each teen is seeking someone who believes them, validates their experiences and feelings, and supports that instinct that is telling them it’s time to get out.    Each receives support and services personalized to his or her situation.  The feedback I receive from parents and teens about Dove’s influence usually comes in the form of a story – a teen who broke off an abusive relationship; one who avoided dating an abuser by recognizing the warning signs; a group of friends who helped another friend get away from an abusive partner; a teen who finally broke free from an extremely controlling partner who is now reaching out to help other friends. 

Here are some warning signs to help family and friends recognize that a teen may be in an abusive relationship:

  • Afraid of partner’s temper
  • Afraid to break up because partner threatens to hurt self or others
  • Constantly apologizing for or defending partner’s behavior
  • Afraid to disagree with partner
  • Constantly monitored by partner (cell phone, digital monitoring/stalking)
  • Isolated from family and friends
  • Embarrassed in front of others because of partner’s words or actions
  • Intimidated by partner and coerced into having sex

An abusive partner often exhibits the following behaviors:

  • Explosive temper
  • Possessive or jealous of partner’s time, friends, and/or family
  • Constantly criticizes partner’s thoughts, feelings, or appearance
  • Pinches, slaps, grabs, shoves, or throws things at partner
  • Coerces or intimidates partner into having sex
  • Blames partner for his/her own anger and behaviors
  • Causes partner to be afraid
  • Uses tears and/or threats of suicide to manipulate any situation

Dove is available 24/7 to answer questions and work with teens and families dealing with abusive relationships.  Schools and youth leaders are invited to call to request presentations for their teens.  Dove can be reached at www.doveinc.org or at 217-423-2238. 

Another great resource for teens and parents to learn more about teen dating violence is Love Is Respect, the National Teen Dating Abuse Help Line (www.loveisrespect.org).  The website offers an emergency hotline (1-866-331-9474) statistics, safety planning information, videos, quizzes, and parent information. 

Dating during the teen years sets the stage for an individual’s adult relationships.  Dove strives to teach teens skills for healthy relationships, but is there to help them if things go wrong.  Every teen (and adult) deserves a great relationship – and great relationships are all about respect.

Joyce Kirkland

Youth and Family Services Coordinator

Dove Domestic Violence Program

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