Ah, Valentine’s Day! A day dedicated to love, romance and chocolates surely brightens up the middle of winter. Unfortunately, for 3 out of every 10 teens, a more relevant thing about February is that it’s Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
While abusive relationships can be difficult to understand, identify and talk about for both teens and adults, it is important we make the effort. Teens in abusive relationships are more likely to have eating disorders and depression, and to continue having abusive relationships in adulthood.
Leaving an abuser can be more complicated than it sounds. Abusers often threaten violence over breaking up. The teen may believe abuse is normal, feel embarrassed, be in love with the abuser and hope that person will change, feel responsible for the abuser’s behavior or feel pressured by peers to stay in the relationship. Teens also often distrust authority figures like parents, teachers and police and may feel like there is no one they can go to for help.
Relationship abuse can take many forms. It can be perpetrated overtly or subtly, in person or over the phone, in letters or e-mails, using social media or text messages, verbally or physically. It comes in too many shapes and forms to list here. I recommend www.loveisrespect.org, www.loveisnotabuse.com and www.teendvmonth.org as resources for detailed information about the many manifestations of relationship abuse.
The following behaviors in your teen are usually signs of abuse:
• Apologizing/making excuses for partner’s behavior
• Losing interest in activities he or she normally enjoys
• Becoming isolated from friends and family
• Mentioning partner’s violence in passing as a joke
• Having unexplained injuries or giving explanations of injuries that do not make sense
The following behaviors in your teen’s partner are usually signs of abuse:
• Name-calling and putting down their boyfriend or girlfriend
• Acting overly jealous of interactions with others
• Controlling their boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s behavior
• Checking up constantly (calling, texting, emailing)
• Demanding to know who else their boyfriend/girlfriend has been spending time with
You can contact the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline by live online chat ( www.loveisrespect.org) and by phone (866-332-9474, 866-331-8453 TTY) for advice if you have questions about abuse. If you are a teen who feels in immediate danger or you feel your teen is in immediate danger, call 911.
If you suspect your teen is being abused, you may be reluctant to speak up, fearing you could be wrong. If your teen is in an abusive relationship, he or she may feel a sense of shame or somehow feel responsible for the abuse. These concerns can make it uncomfortable to talk about this issue, but it is crucial to do so.
Depending on your relationship, you may be able to talk about it directly. If you are concerned talking directly may backfire, a more subtle approach may work. Try talking about abusive relationships in the abstract – something that your teen needs to be aware does happen. Maybe mention your concern about the abuse of someone else and what the signs of abuse are in that relationship.
Preventing your child from getting into abusive relationships begins by talking to him or her early (ideally before dating begins) and often. Discuss what a healthy relationship looks and feels like and what it does not look and feel like. Teach your teen early and stay involved to prevent abuse.
Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.