How to be aware of the signs and talk to teens about relationships and domestic abuse.
Domestic violence is a serious problem, but it’s not just a concern for adults. Young adults, especially teenagers, are often vulnerable to dating violence, in part because they haven’t been taught anything about it.
Think back to your own foray into the teen years. Do you recall having conversations with your parents, educators, or even peers, about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships? Chances are, the answer is no. The dreaded “sex talks” that so many teens and parents alike faced, usually had nothing to do with dating abuse or the signs of an unhealthy relationship. Yet, these are key pieces we need to be teaching youth, from an early age.
In fact, they’re asking for it.
After last year’s domestic murder of an 18-year-old Quebec woman, at the hands of an ex-boyfriend, youth at Dawson College raised their voices: we wish we’d learned about dating violence earlier. Dawn and Ed Novak, the parents of Natalie Novak, also killed by her ex-boyfriend have dedicated their lives to teaching young people about warning signs of abusive relationships and encouraging everyone around them to speak out when they see these warning signs.
The reality is that many youth are in intimate relationships and they are having sex. Regurgitating the “abstinence is best” mantra may work for some families and teens, but for many, that’s not the best route. Rather, acknowledge that teens will be sexually curious and many will be active. Having honest and open discussions with teenagers instead of avoiding them out of fear of feeling awkward or uncomfortable, is in the best interests of everyone. Through these two-sided talks we can not only learn more ourselves, but we can also teach about healthy relationships. We can arm teens with knowledge about how to create boundaries for themselves as well as look out for others who might be experiencing abuse.
Teens Don’t Know What Dating Violence Looks Like
Numerous experts point out a crucial point when it comes to talking to teens about dating violence: many don’t know what an unhealthy relationship even looks like. Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Sclifer Commemorative Clinic, explains:
“There’s a lot of misunderstood filtering of information about what is romantic. ‘If he pursues me in an aggressive and relentless way, he must really like me.’ The moment that turns into violence is not necessarily expected by a young woman who’s not looking for the signs.”
If we don’t teach our girls and young women what signs to watch out for, how can we expect them to know what is okay and what isn’t? Or, how and when to seek help, either for themselves or others?
A recent study based out of the University of Calgary discovered similar findings. Deinera Exner-Cortens, who led the study, expressed her concern that many adolescents may not even recognize that what they are experiencing is dating violence. Her study, which showed that teens who experience violence in dating relationships are more likely to suffer from domestic abuse as adults, is a wake-up call. It’s a strong reminder that not only do we need to be doing more to educate teens on domestic abuse, but also that dating violence amongst teens needs to be taken more seriously.
This education needs to teach teens about the various forms that violence can take. Dating violence can be physical, but it can also be emotional, psychological or sexual. Young women have a tendency to minimize behaviours of boyfriends or young men who do things like cyberstalk them, text them obsessively, demand that they stay away from certain friends or wear particular clothing. Romanticizing jealousy can be a catalyst for increasingly controlling and abusive behaviour and can cause many to believe that their toxic relationship is normal.
Youth begin to form relationships from a very young age, so we need to be doing all we can to ensure they’re getting the necessary information early on, so that they can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviours, and learn how to seek help if a relationship ever becomes concerning or turns violent.
Signs of Teen Dating Violence
Signs of dating violence can vary, but there are some particular signs teens should be aware of when it comes to their own relationships or those of close friends. Most importantly, if your gut is telling you something isn’t right, that’s a sure sign.
- Intense or suffocating jealousy: A partner’s insecurity can lead to distrust, which in turn can lead to constant surveillance. You shouldn’t have to worry about having friendships with members of the opposite sex, or feel like every phone call, text message or email, is being monitored.
- Cutting off friendships: Extreme jealousy and insecurity can lead to a partner trying to take over all your time, keeping you away from friends and even family. Often, this first happens with friends of the opposite sex. It might happen slowly over time, so it is less noticeable, but you should never feel the pressure to choose between friends/family and a partner.
- Moving too fast: Feeling pressured to do something you’re not ready for, like having sex, can be part of a cycle of manipulation and intimidation. You will not be ‘guilted into’ doing something you’re not comfortable with in a healthy relationship with a caring, respectful partner . You never need to “prove your love” by engaging in activities you’re not comfortable with or ready for, including sex. This is a critical warning sign that it may be time to get out of the relationship, as quickly and safely as you can.
- Possessive behaviour: Feeling the desire for power and control is always a dynamic of teen dating violence. Abusive partners are usually possessive and will go to great lengths to control their partners.
- Verbal insults: Abusive and insecure partners use humiliation or insults to prey upon their partner’s vulnerabilities. This leaves their partner feeling less worthy. A healthy relationship will build you up, not tear you down.
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