Posted Monday, February 27, 2012
For single teens, the idea of not having a boyfriend or girlfriend may seem tragic, but as Christie Rizzo, Ph.D., a child psychologist with the Bradley/Hasbro Children's Research Center and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University will testify, it's better to be safe and single, than dating and in danger.
It's a sobering statistic that may surprise many parents and teachers: as many as one in four teens (both male and female) have been in physically abusive relationships. Additionally, more than two-thirds have experienced some form of sexual coercion, such as unwanted kissing, hugging, genital contact and sexual intercourse.
Rizzo, an active researcher on adolescent dating violence, says that many parents are in the dark about their child's situation because teens are very good at hiding the signs of abuse. However, just because they may not see outward signs of violence, there are a number of other warning signs that parents can look for.
“Depression is strongly associated with dating violence, so if your teen is in a relationship and suddenly begins doing poorly in school or is isolating themselves from their friends, these may indicate that he or she is in an unhealthy relationship,” says Rizzo.
Sometimes, teens may not even realize they're experiencing early signs of abuse. A predominant indicator of an abusive relationship is extreme jealousy. Adolescents new to romantic relationships, however, may equate jealousy with love, and think jealousy is a good thing.
“If you notice that your teen is constantly responding (by phone, text messages, or on the computer) to their partner and is anxious to get back to them right away, if your teen is worried about what to wear because of what their partner might think or if your teen stops talking to the opposite sex because his or her partner doesn’t like it; these are good markers that something's not right,” explains Rizzo.
Although the focus is often on protecting girls from their boyfriends, it is also important for parents to recognize that their sons can be victims, too. “Research has shown that girls also perpetrate physical violence and not always in circumstances of self-defense. It is easy to minimize this type of violence because we assume that boys aren’t affected, but this is not the case. All teens need to understand the risks,” she says.
Rizzo asserts that the most important thing for parents is to have an ongoing dialogue with their teen. “Kids are so inexperienced with dating, they don't recognize that a partner's extreme jealousy is a form of abuse, so if you encourage an open and ongoing dialogue, you're more likely to have your teen report to you,” she says.
For parents who might not know where to start, Rizzo suggests they begin by talking about what is healthy in a relationship versus what is not. Teens may be experiencing psychological violence and not put it in the same level of seriousness as physical abuse, but data show that a victim of psychological abuse is more likely to experience physical violence down the road.
“Kids need to hear from their parents that their partner should not be controlling their behavior, and that jealousy is not a sign of love, but of psychological abuse,” she says, adding, “modeling a healthy romantic relationship at home helps, too.”
It is also vital for parents to understand that in teen relationships technology (cell phones, text or instant messenger [IM], social networking sites) is often a tool of abuse. One in three teens say they are text messaged up to 30 times an hour by a partner inquiring where they are, what they’re doing, or who they are with. “Control and intimidation through technology can be just as serious as face-to-face violence. Parents need to have a dialogue with their teens about how to set healthy limits in-person and online,” says Rizzo.
Another tactic is to encourage teens to date in groups and to have an exit strategy if they get in an uncomfortable situation. “Parents and teachers can help teens understand that drinking and drugs make people more vulnerable to sexual violence, and also make it clear that you can be raped by a boyfriend,” says Rizzo.
However, parents should also realize that breaking off an abusive relationship can be very difficult for a teenager. “First of all, adolescents may interpret the jealousy and controlling behavior in their partner as a sign that they're loved, secondly, there's an enormous amount of peer pressure for teens to be dating and in a relationship, and third of all, teens are scared that if they leave the relationship, they won't find anyone else,” explains Rizzo.
Rizzo offers the following advice for parents:
The key to stopping dating violence is to talk about it. Don’t be afraid to have a discussion with your teen, regardless of whether he or she is dating someone or not.
Don’t assume you only need to talk to your daughters about dating violence, as it often involves mutual abuse – both boys and girls are perpetrators and victims.
Help your kids to recognize what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from a boyfriend or girlfriend. Tell them they can always talk to you if they’re not sure.
Get to know your teen’s friends. Victims rarely talk to their parents about their abuse, but frequently turn to their peers for support.
Understand that it’s not easy for a teen to break off an abusive relationship. Offer support, and help your child stay firm in his or her decision to stay away from their partner.
Most importantly, if you suspect your teen is struggling with dating violence, get help early. A counselor may be able to motivate your teen to make a positive change, even if you can’t.
If you need help talking to your teen about dating violence, call Bradley Hospital at 401-432-1364.
Filed under: Bradley, Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center,