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Teen dating violence

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Have you ever talked to your teen about dating violence? Many parents talk about sex, bullying, smoking, internet safety, substance abuse—all good subjects. But dating violence? It’s a complex issue, and largely neglected.

“Maybe that’s because we perceive it as not likely to happen to our own teens,” says Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, of the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing. “Only incidents resulting in death make the news. And we don’t understand how much impact all levels of violence can have. Emotional and lower levels of physical abuse may not put you into the hospital, but they can affect your health by causing you to do poorly in school and at work, contributing to depression, substance abuse, even suicide.”

“We’re where the bullying research was 15 years ago,” says Dr. Claire Crooks, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Dating violence isn’t taken seriously because dating is not taken seriously. Measurement issues coupled with lack of standardized definitions create another layer of complexity. Also, we don’t have consensus among educators on whether teen dating violence is a parental matter or a public matter.”

 A 2008 Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics survey found that, in the age group 14-18 in Canada, 4 teens died, 148 were sexually assaulted, and 2,586 were physically assaulted by an intimate partner. And these statistics don’t capture emotional/verbal, physical, and sexual aggression—the most common forms of violence in teen dating.

The Teen Relationships Project, meanwhile, found that half of all teenaged students are victims of verbal aggression (spreading rumors, getting even, hurtful teasing), one in four is a victim of minor physical aggression (pushing, grabbing or smashing an object) and one in five is a victim of major physical aggression (like slamming someone against a wall, or slapping).

We tend to dismiss the impact of low-level violence or conflict that results from poor relationship skills, says Saewyc. “Youth model the relationships they see around them. How much sexual violence and abuse in the media do you think teens see as normal, and in peer and adult relationships?”

Steve Sullivan, the first Federal Ombudsman for victims of crime, says: “With teen violence, we need to learn more about how youth define it. Some victims may not think that a slap is violence; they may not see, or want to see, their partner as a violent person.  It’s difficult to convince anyone to come forward when they recognize unacceptable behaviour, but it’s even more difficult if teens don’t understand the behaviour as criminal aggression. We need to find a way to educate teens about violence, abuse and aggression, and let them know that it doesn’t just mean serious physical harm.”

Teens get confused between what’s healthy and what’s not, says Kate McCord, the Red Flag Campaign Co-coordinator for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. “Very few of us—adults—have been taught this. It’s worthwhile to teach kids how relationships can be affirming versus destructive. Healthy relationship concepts—for example, what trust, safety, connection, boundaries or balance look like—can be nebulous to understand.”

How do we reduce teen violence? We need potential victims and abusers “to understand that violence is unacceptable and has real consequences,” says Sullivan. Help teenagers understand how to recognize abuse, and encourage them to report it. Call your teen’s high school, find out how they deal with sexual harassment, and ask whether they have a dating violence program in place.

 “It’s important to provide programs in schools that focus on healthy relationships. But that’s not enough,” says Saewyc. “We also need to help parents and families understand what a healthy relationship is so that they can support their teens.”

Dating violence can escalate from verbal and emotional abuse to sexual assault and violent physical assault. Abuse continuums (co-developed by college-aged students) at www.theredflagcampaign.org illustrate how dating violence works and highlight early warning signs. The continuum describes an escalating range from sexist jokes, sexual objectification, jealousy, minimizing partner’s feelings and needs regarding sex, criticizing a partner sexually, unwanted touch, withholding sex and affection, sexual labels like “whore” or “frigid,” always demanding sex—all the way to murder.

I asked McCord what’s important for a parent to understand about dating violence. She said: “What calls for attention is the gray area—psychological abuse. For example, isolation, jealousy and coercion are not necessarily illegal or physical, but they are no less destructive than physical and sexual violence and can be precursors to physical and sexual violence.”

Would your teen know what to do if her boyfriend insulted her repeatedly, called her names, demanded all her attention, ignored her feelings, or put down her ability to act on her own behalf?  Teens need to know what to do when they come up against aggressive behaviors in a relationship. “Youth need better skills for how to manage conflict in respectful ways,” says Saewyc. “They need to know what their rights and responsibilities in a relationship are,” adds Crooks. “And that when they break up with someone, that person doesn’t have the right to send out naked pictures of them on Facebook.”

There are good on-line resources to help you to understand how to talk to your child. Here are some:

 “Teen dating violence is a serious issue in Canada,” says Sullivan, who adds that crimes of violence between intimate partners are seriously under-reported. “Beyond the statistics is a young person who in many cases is suffering the victimization alone. Many do not tell anyone and therefore do not get the support they need. And they learn the wrong lessons from the violence—they deserved it, they’re not worthy of better treatment—that they carry into adult relationships.”

Kaycee Jane is the author of Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends (Amazon). Jane blogs at www.frogorprince.ca. When life with your teen seems overwhelming, try www.TeenCentral.net’s Parent section and get help from a professional.