Several years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of nurses and physicians about Teen Dating Violence. During the presentation an audience member asked this question, “How serious can teen dating violence really be? Since teens’ relationships aren’t that serious to begin with, and they know their relationships aren’t really going to last, how could a teen relationship even become abusive?” I paused, and then asked the audience to close their eyes for a moment, and think back to when they were a teenager. To reflect on what their favorite clothes were or their favorite song; to remember that place they used to always hang out. Then I asked them to think about their first crush, their first love. How strongly did they feel for that person?
As adults, we can be tempted to minimize the romantic relationships teens experience. When we hear our daughter or son say that they are in love, but we know that they have only been “dating” their love interest for a few days, and that “dating” is really just hanging out with a bunch of their friends, it can be difficult to not tell them that that’s not really being “in love”. If we witness a young person we care about fall into despair because they were recently dumped, we may feel an urge to remind them how young they are, how they will have plenty of opportunities to date someone else. We want to say these things with the best of intentions, we want to say these things because we have more life experience and therefore know more/better, and we want them to be able to learn from our very knowledgeable adult selves. (Question: Did we listen to our parents when we were teenagers?)
Unfortunately, when we minimize teen relationships we inevitably (despite our good intentions) shut the conversation down. When I think back on my first relationship, I remember being head over heels in love. I thought I had found my soul mate, that I would marry this person. We even picked out names for our future children. And anyone who tried to tell me differently became someone I didn’t feel comfortable talking to about my relationship- which was a problem when the relationship became abusive.
We may think that teenagers aren’t very invested in their dating relationships and could easily end them if the relationship took a turn for the worse, but ending a relationship is a difficult decision, even when the relationship isn’t abusive. In addition to the feelings they have for that person, they often have shared friends, and see each other in school every day. They can have almost constant access to one another through cell phones and social media, and they may feel disconnected from other supportive relationships and fear being alone if they leave their partner. And just as the feelings they have for their partner can be very real and very serious, so can the abuse. A survey conducted by Liz Claiborne, Inc. in 2006 discovered that one in five teens who have been in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped or pushed by a partner; many more report experiencing emotional, verbal, and physiological abuse.
Young people do need support and guidance from the caring adults in their lives; they can be more vulnerable to teen dating violence because of their lack of experience and knowledge about healthy dating relationships. Opening the conversation with the teens in your life is an important step; we have to be prepared to listen, really listen, to what they have to say.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. For more about dating violence and how REACH can help, click here.