February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and there is a lot wrapped up in that topic.
For starters, it’s sadly pretty common, with women between the ages of 16 and 24 experiencing violence in their relationships at rates that are three times the national average. LGBTQ teens experience abuse at around the same rates as heterosexual couples do.
And teens are often hesitant to report the abuse because they don’t know where to turn. Talking about romantic relationships with parents or other adults can be uncomfortable, even when everything is going great, so it’s an even harder topic to bring up when they think there might be a problem.
Even when teens do have the courage to speak up, they are sometimes dismissed by the adults in their lives. It’s easy for adults to think that a teenager isn’t capable of real, serious violence or that the accuser is just being naive and dramatic.
If you’re a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult who interacts with teens, what can you do to help them when they’re experiencing violence in their relationship? How can you identify the signs, and how do you support them?
What Does Dating Violence Look Like?
Dating violence can run the gamut from physical abuse, which is perhaps where your mind first jumps to when you hear the word violence, to other, subtler forms of abuse. This can include constant texting and calling, name calling, controlling what their partner wears or who they see, and preventing them from hanging out with their friends.
It can be hard to spot dating violence at first because, as one survivor pointed out in the story she shared here a few months ago, it starts slowly. Not only that, but once the abuser exhibits that destructive behavior, they often go out of their way to do nice things for their partner, apologizing and acting especially kind as a way to excuse or minimize the abuse.
Lay the Groundwork for Open Conversation
The first step toward making a teen experiencing abuse feel comfortable in discussing their situation is letting them know that you’re there for them. Teens in abusive relationships are fearful of their partner—the person they feel they’re supposed to trust most—so it makes them even more wary about opening up to adults about their situation.
Even if you don’t suspect any abuse, introduce the concept of dating abuse to the teens in your life early. Ask your teen about the relationships they see happening between their classmates at school. What are the norms when it comes to dating? Have you seen any behavior that makes you uncomfortable or that you think might be abusive? And what are the factors that make a relationship healthy and good?
Take the time to listen to their answers, and to either reassure them that they have a good sense of what’s healthy and what’s not in a relationship, or provide additional guidance if they seem off base. If you’re looking for material to help guide the conversation, consider ordering our Know Your Rights Guides, which are designed to educate teens on a number of topics from dating abuse to stalking to how to help a friend experiencing abuse.
Whatever the outcome of the conversation, end by letting them know that it’s not okay for their partner (whether they have one now or hope to have one in the future) to make them feel unsafe, and that you are a non-judgemental ear if they ever need to talk about something that’s concerning them.
When the teen knows ahead of time that you are on their side and have their best interests at heart, they’ll be more likely to open up if something does start to feel off in their relationship.
How to Tell if a Teen Wants to Talk
Speaking up about abuse is hard for teens to do. Often, getting them to open up will take some prompting. This means that you need to be able to identify the signs that a teen might have something serious to discuss with you.
They’ll look for a way to have the conversation privately, so if you see that a teen is angling for one-on-one time, that might be a sign they have something important to discuss. If you’re a teacher, that might be a student loitering near the classroom door after the bell has already rung. If you’re a parent or guardian, your teen might volunteer to go with you while you run errands.
If you find yourself alone with the teen in your life, let them know that you’re here to listen if they have anything they’d like to share. If they’re quiet at first, don’t try to change the subject or start a filler conversation: allow them the time and space they need to gather up the courage to say what they need to say.
Let Them Know You Believe Them
Once a teen has shared with you that they’re concerned about their relationship, the first and most important thing you need to do is to really listen and tell them you believe them. It’s really hard to open up about an abusive relationship--no matter how old you are--so this teen is not only exhibiting a lot of bravery, they’re also demonstrating their deep level of trust in you.
You need to show that you’re worthy of that level of trust by accepting what you’re hearing and offering to support in the best way you can. Do not ask questions that imply you doubt the severity of the situation, or that you are unsure that what they’re saying is true. This is likely to not only damage your relationship with the teen, but also to keep them from telling others who might be more willing and able to help.
Learning that a teen you care about is experiencing abuse can certainly be overwhelming, and you might not feel like you have the tools to help on your own. Consider reaching out to Day One about our direct services; you can reach our confidential helpline by calling 800-214-4150 or texting 646-535-DAY1 (3291).
Keep an Eye Out for Signs of Abuse
Sometimes teens aren’t ready to open up about what they’re experiencing in their relationships, but that doesn’t mean that everything is okay. It’s a good idea for you to know the signs of dating abuse, and to be on the lookout for those behaviors.
Some of the signs may be obvious. For example, you might see firsthand that the teen’s partner is constantly calling or texting and monitoring their whereabouts. Others may be more subtle, like the teen experiencing abuse might begin to lose interest in activities they once really enjoyed.
If you suspect something is wrong, letting the teen know that you are a sympathetic ear is an important first step. If they’re not ready to talk yet, reiterate that you’re here to listen, and be sure that you make the time and space to really hear what they’re saying once they are ready to talk.
The teen years are a tumultuous time filled with uncertainty and lots of firsts. These are often the years when people experience their first romantic relationships, and so it’s understandable that they might be confused about what to expect, what’s okay behavior, and what’s not. As an adult in their lives, the best thing that you can do is demonstrate your respect for them by assuring them you’re there to listen when they need it, and then following through on your promise when the time comes.