Teen dating violence is no small problem and, sadly, is much more common than many parents believe.
It’s estimated 1 in 3 girls in this country is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nearly 1.5 million high-school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year.
“Most parents think it won’t happen to their child,” said Dr. Jessica Castonguay, an adolescent medicine specialist at Akron Children’s. “But, if it’s not happening to your child, it’s probably happening to one of her friends.”
Teen dating violence is a pattern of a variety of behaviors used to exert power and control over the victim, and can come in the form of verbal, emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. It affects girls and boys across all races and socioeconomic status, and happens in both heterosexual and disproportionally in homosexual relationships.
As we recognize Teen Dating Violence Awareness this month, Dr. Castonguay gets to the heart of the matter by discussing warning signs and helping parents protect their children if they become a victim.
“It may start with manipulation, keeping the victim away from friends or family, or logging into the victim’s social media account,” she said. “The key is preventing this abuse from developing into the physical and sexual violent relationship we see after a long line of mistreatment.”
Teen dating violence warning signs
Common warning signs of a teen dating violence victim:
- Sudden changes in appearance or diet
- Failing grades
- Avoiding friends and family, or withdrawing from social activities
- Unexplained bruises or scratches
- Becoming secretive, or sudden changes in mood or personality
Red flags of an abusive partner:
- Jealousy and possessive behavior
- Controlling or demanding
- Makes false accusations, questions victim’s motives
- Explosive temper, blames victim for arguments or other issues
- Insults victim
- Constantly calls, texts or checks up on victim
What can parents do to help keep their children safe?
It’s important to talk to your children about what a healthy relationship looks like even before they start dating. One that involves respect both ways, and each partner has regard for the other’s privacy and boundaries. Be sure to point out healthy and unhealthy relationships in your own life or in movies.
“Many parents don’t think of dating until kids actually go out on a date with a partner, but we see many middle schoolers who are in what they consider to be committed relationships,” said Dr. Castonguay. “In these younger age groups, we’re seeing abusive behaviors through social media, such as stalking, that can later blossom into dangerous activity.”
If you think your child may be in an unhealthy relationship, keep an open, nonjudgmental and understanding dialogue. If you notice some red flags, encourage your child to look deeper into them.
Listen to your child and refrain from lecturing or making demands. Instead of trying to force your child to break it off, you could say, “I’ve noticed some changes in your relationship and your partner’s behavior. Is there something you’d like to talk to me about?”
“The key is helping your child come to her own conclusions,” said Dr. Castonguay. “If you try to force the situation, research has shown the victim is more likely to stay in the relationship.”