Not Just a Phase
Teen dating abuse transcends economic, gender lines
By Dwain Hebda
Angela McGraw is a mother of six, a successful career woman and a statistic. “I’m a survivor of domestic violence,” she says. “It was right out of high school. I wasn’t very familiar with relationships at that time.” The experience, which McGraw speaks of with matter-of-fact candor, is one reason she’s so effective in her role as executive director of Women & Children First: The Center Against Family Violence in Little Rock. It’s also been useful first-person information for raising her children, none of whom have experienced similar treatment.
And it gives her personal insight of how violence creeps into relationships and how it can fester under the cover of shame, a perspective she shares with young people and their parents in the battle against the growing problem of teen dating violence.
“In my work in the high schools and middle schools environment, you almost can’t be among the kids and not see the issue of dating violence taking place right before your eyes,” she says.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports one in five high schoolers are physically or sexually abused by a dating partner; San Francisco-based advocacy group Future Without Violence reports the same percentage of 11- to 14-year-olds know a friend who’s been abused. The Arkansas Legal Partnership reported in 2012 that more than 14 percent of high schoolers in the state have experienced dating violence.
As with domestic abuse, no one is immune to teen dating abuse. Economic status, grades and achievement do not disqualify someone from such problems and in some cases can make things harder to come to grips with.
“If people had any idea of the demographics of this, there are just no boundaries to it at all. It hits everybody,” McGraw says. “I see the richest kids dealing with dating violence and I’ve seen the very poor dealing with dating violence.
“A lot of times, kids who have more resources and more support think, ‘I’m not supposed to be one of those people,’ and so they don’t want to identify as being one of them. There’s an embarrassment, a stigma that’s attached to that and that’s probably a bigger issue with the kids who have more resources than those who don’t.”
Unlike domestic violence, which is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women, dating violence doesn’t cut so neatly along gender lines. “We see lots and lots of girls who text their boyfriends 64 times a day, wanting to know where they are, saying they can’t talk to any other girls, displaying that jealousy. This is becoming more and more common,” McGraw says.
Megan Holt, director of clinical services for The BridgeWay Hospital, said an inability to appropriately manage feelings of anger and frustration are common underlying causes for developing abusive tendencies or actions, especially if a child has experienced or witnessed domestic violence in their own homes. Therefore, abuse treatment options focus on coping with the immediate aftermath as well as underlying issues.
“This could include tools that, when used in conjunction with therapy, helps the victim explore different ways an abusive partner may be using power or control to manipulate the relationship,” Holt says. “This also helps the victims evaluate relationships in a new way.
“In addition, treatment would look to address all identified problems with the client. In that way, the client may also be dealing with some of the residual symptoms such as depression or self-esteem.”
Holt said regardless of background or circumstances, it is important to get treatment if you suspect your teen is experiencing dating violence. Adolescent girls in particular tend to have lasting ramifications that can place them at higher risk for later substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors and suicide.
Parents of perpetrators of teen dating violence should also seek help for their child, as such behavior often feeds domestic violence in adulthood. “As far as teen-violence perpetrators counseling, individuals or families could seek help on their own but many enter services through a court system,” Holt says. “This may be related to gender differences in help-seeking patterns: Research has emerged that teen males strongly oppose using formal support services and prefer to rely on friends and family for support. Female teens, alternatively, seem to face difficulties in relying on friends and family for support, thereby it is more common for them to seek professional services.”
Parents not only need to pay attention to the various warning signs of dating violence, but also approach the subject in the correct manner. Skilled abusers create barriers between their partner and their partner’s family and friends and coming on too strong only validates these messages. Restraining from a hardline approach is a difficult but necessary step. “Pulling them away from their partner is probably not going to be the answer. Parents don’t like to hear that, I didn’t like to hear that with my own six kids, but educating them is the key to helping them understand how unhealthy their relationship is,” McGraw says. “Be supportive and educate when you can and eventually something’s going to take. There’s going to be something that you say that’s going to help them understand.”