Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month! This is a month designated by national efforts to raise awareness about abuse in teen and young adult relationships and to promote programs that work to prevent it. Do we really need a whole month to talk about teen dating violence? Is it really a big deal? The answer is an overwhelming YES! As reported by loveisrespect.org, 1 in 3 adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional or verbal) from a dating partner, a number that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence and which, by any other standards, would be called an epidemic. Almost 1.5 million high school students nationwide will experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year. But while these numbers of teens affected are staggering, 81% of parents polled didn’t believe teen dating violence was an issue. And 67% of teens who experienced violence in a relationship never told anyone about the abuse. Dating violence in teen relationships isn’t just high school hallway drama or “teens being teens”, it’s a very real, very serious issue and it’s time we start talking about it. Everyone deserves a safe and healthy relationship.

So what actually is dating abuse? It’s a pattern of abusive behaviors — usually a series of abusive behaviors over a period of time — used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Every relationship is different, but the things that unhealthy and abusive relationships have in common are issues of power and control. An abusive partner seeks to gain and maintain power and control over their partner. Any young person can experience dating abuse, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing, race, ethnicity, religion or culture. And it can happen in any relationship, whether it’s serious or casual. It’s important to know that dating abuse doesn’t just mean physical violence; dating abuse can fall into several categories:

  • Physical Abuse: Any intentional use of physical force with the intent to cause fear or injury, like hitting, shoving, biting, strangling, kicking or using a weapon.
  • Verbal or Emotional Abuse: Non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring, humiliation, intimidation, isolation or stalking.
  • Sexual Abuse: Any action that impacts a person’s ability to control their sexual activity or the circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, including rape, coercion or restricting access to birth control.
  • Digital Abuse: Use of technologies and/or social media networking to intimidate, harass or threaten a current or ex-dating partner such as demanding passwords, checking cell phones, cyberbullying, non-consensual sexting, excessive or threatening texts or stalking on social media.
  • Stalking: Being repeatedly watched, followed, monitored or harassed. Stalking can occur online or in person, and may or may not include giving unwanted gifts.
  • Financial Abuse: Exerting power and control over a partner through their finances, including taking or withholding money from a partner, or prohibiting a partner from earning, or spending their money.

Be on the lookout for these common warning signs that a relationship isn’t healthy:

  • Checking cell phones, texts, social media platforms without permission
  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity and possessiveness
  • Constant belittling or put-downs
  • Explosive temper
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Constant mood swings towards you
  • Physically inflicting pain or hurt in any way
  • Telling someone what to do, making all the decisions in the relationship
  • Pressuring someone to go further sexually than they are willing

As a youth-serving advocate and prevention educator, I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk about these issues and educate teens and young adults about what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. I spent my teen years as a very easily influenced “at-risk youth” and I don’t recall ever having these critical conversations about what is healthy in a relationship — what I deserve in a relationship — versus what isn’t healthy. This topic wasn’t covered at school; I guess it was expected that students were all learning about relationships at home. (The problem with this is that students may only see and experience unhealthy relationships at home and then they only learn to assume that’s what’s normal.) Looking back now, I know I witnessed dangerously unhealthy relationships among peers at the time I was a student but I didn’t know to help because this just wasn’t something that was talked about. In my work with youth today I realize that they are struggling with the same issues around quietly assuming an uncomfortable or unsafe relationship is just the norm and not realizing they have rights and options. I still hear the same comments from adults that teens are “just being dramatic” or “just being teenagers” and that mindset is used to dismiss the severity of unhealthy behaviors in teen relationships. But in my work I’m really seeking to educate adults about talking with teens, listening to teens, taking them seriously and understanding that not feeling listened to and believed means teens aren’t going to be able to tell adults when a relationship has become dangerous – and I know this because I talk to teens who tell me this. I’m beyond grateful that my job lets me be a supportive adult in the lives of teens and young adults who need it and my goal right now for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is to reach out to adults to help bridge this communication gap. It’s time to talk about teen dating violence.

Kimberly Pufahl, Sexual Assault Victim Services Family Advocate