During Child Abuse Prevention Month we would like to highlight a type of abuse that is not always recognized as a form of child abuse: teen dating violence. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 adolescents experience some type of abuse (whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual) at the hands of a romantic partner. So what is teen dating violence? The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines it as “the intentional use of destructive behaviors by one person to exert power and control over their dating partner.” Examples of teen dating violence include, but are not limited to, physical and sexual violence, emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse, cyber abuse, and stalking. This often overlooked form of child abuse is becoming more common among teens, which is why we would like to provide you with some warning signs of teen dating violence, and some tips for working with adolescents and teens who may have experienced dating violence.
Drastic Change in Physical Appearance: Victims of teen dating violence may lose or gain weight very rapidly. They may begin to wear a lot more makeup than usual, or stop wearing makeup altogether. They may begin to wear baggier clothes, often to cover bruises, scratches, or scars. They might start dressing very differently than they normally do.
Behavioral and Personality Changes: Victims may become more depressed, withdrawn, or irritable than usual. They may begin to blame themselves for things they do not have control over. They may also become hypervigilant: their senses are over-aroused, leading to over-reaction to non-threatening stimuli. They may begin to isolate themselves from friends and family. In school, victims may either become a bully or be bullied. They may stop caring about school. Their grades may drop, and they may stop attending classes.
Self-Harming/Dangerous Behaviors: Victims may begin to partake in self-harming behaviors, such as cutting or hair-pulling. They also may begin to use drugs and alcohol, or increase the use of these substances.
For a more comprehensive list of warning signs, please see the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Warning Signs of Teen Dating Violence.
Teen dating violence is not an easy topic to address, especially for parents and other adults invested in children’s lives. Many adults do not know how to effectively start a conversation around teen dating violence. This is not a comfortable topic to discuss, so we hope these tips can help you have an open communication around teen dating violence, and keep the teens and adolescents in your life safe.
Believe Them!: It takes a lot of courage for a teen or adolescent to tell an adult about a situation where they are vulnerable and not in control. The best thing you can do as a trusted adult is believe what you are being told. Explicitly thanking the child for sharing their story with you and telling them you believe them will empower them, which is something that has been taken from them in an abusive relationship.
Create a Trusting and Empowering Environment: If a teen or adolescent discloses to you that they are being abused by a dating partner, they need to feel supported. Thank them for sharing that information with you, and for trusting you with that information. Remind them that they are taking a big step in advocating for themselves, and you want to help them stay safe.
Listen More Than You Speak: Parents want to keep their children safe, and often want to immediately fix whatever problems their children may be facing. If a child in your life discloses that they are being abused by a dating partner, they need you to listen to their story before you can go about looking for solutions. In many cases of abuse, the victim has had their sense of control completely stripped away. By allowing the child to lead the conversation and share as much or as little information as they are comfortable, you are helping them regain that sense of power. If this is the first time the child has disclosed the abuse, they may need time to emotionally process the situation by talking to you. Your best bet is to be patient, open, and accepting of the story the child is telling you.
Be Nonjudgmental: Because teen dating violence is so common, it is likely that a teen or adolescent you know may have experienced it. It may be hard to imagine how someone could become a victim of teen dating violence, but abusers are very good at manipulating others and taking away their power and control. If a child discloses abuse to you, you should always be open and free of judgment. It may be difficult, but it helps keep the communication open, and allows the child to get the help they need.
NEVER Approach the Abuser About the Situation: You should never approach them about the abusive situation, unless you have actually witnessed the abuse happen and can safely intervene, or you have express permission from the victim to approach the abuser. Even if you have a good relationship with the abuser or think you know the abuser really well, approaching them about the abuse could put you or the victim in danger. The abuser may attack you for approaching them, but more often they will become more abusive to the victim as a result of someone intervening.
Access Resources: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has partnered with Discovery Education to create a free curriculum for educators and others working with children. This curriculum, Take A Stand FOR Healthy Relationships, teaches teens and adolescents about emotion identification and regulation, definitions of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how to intervene if they witness an unhealthy relationship. The curriculum also provides various free resources for teens and their families.
The curriculum, as well as many other resources, can be found here.
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