By Tara Chalakani, Psy.D., Chief Executive Officer
While we traditionally celebrate February as Valentine’s Day month, full of candy hearts, chocolates, and flowers, it also commemorates a different type of relationship awareness – National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
Sadly, 1 in 3 U.S. teens will experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from someone they’re in a relationship with before they become adults. And nearly half (43%) of college women report experiencing violent or abusive dating behaviors, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Here in the Garden State, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF) reports that an overwhelming 50-80% of teens have reported knowing others who were involved in violent relationships. Only 33% of NJ teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse, and 86% said they would confide in a friend rather than a caring adult.
Dating abuse also comes with serious long-term consequences: teens are more likely to experience alcoholism, eating disorders, promiscuity, thoughts of suicide, and violent behavior, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Tragically, half of youth survivors of both teen dating violence and sexual assault attempt suicide, compared to 12.5% of non-abused girls and 5.4% of non-abused boys, according to the NJ DCF.
For teens, adolescents, and their parents, it is critical to be able to identify what is an abusive relationship and when dating behaviors cross a line from healthy to unhealthy. When we think of abuse, we think of the obvious warning signs of physical violence and aggression. However, there are many other red flags that feature a pattern of control, manipulation and coercion. These behaviors include checking someone’s social media accounts or texts without permission, being made to feel alone or isolated, losing friends, being controlled, manipulated or threatened, or simply not having thoughts or wishes for personal space requested. Parents should also be on the look-out for red flags, such as when a teenager acts overly nervous that he or she is irritating or upsetting his or her partner.
Gaslighting is a relatively new term that is becoming more widely used to describe behaviors that use psychological manipulation to trigger emotional reactions and is another form of emotional abuse. Denying truths or invalidating feelings – saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” when someone is upset or hurt – lying, name-calling (“crazy, “psycho”), or being told you’re too sensitive. These are all tactics used by a gas-lighter to sow doubt and confusion into a victim’s mind.
Unfortunately, in the digital age, online harassment has emerged as a prevalent and convenient form of dating abuse among young people. In New Jersey, 13.8% of 9th to 12th graders report being electronically bullied in 2019 (counting being bullied through texting, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media, during the 12 months before the survey), according to the New Jersey, High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Abusers can track their victims on social media, send harassing texts and social media messages, attempt to control who they are friends with, threaten victims with posting embarrassing and compromising photos, cyber stalk and worse. This month, President Biden announced his Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse – vetoviolence.gov will work to address cyber abuse as a form of dating violence. As parents, it’s critically important to have discussions about internet safety with our children and monitor the types of apps and conversations teens are having on their phones.
Just as it’s essential to recognize abusive relationships, it’s critical to understand and uplift healthy ones too. Launching their “love is respect” campaign, the National Domestic Violence Hotline explains that while all healthy relationships look differently, the key elements must include: healthy communication, healthy boundaries, mutual respect, and support for one another.
Finally, here in New Jersey, we should work to ensure our schools are safe communities, free from teen dating violence. The Center on Violence Against Women and Children, School of Social Work, Rutgers University, in collaboration with the NJ Domestic Violence Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board, has established guidelines for teen dating violence prevention and programs that include:
- incorporating lesson plans on teen dating violence and related issues such as healthy relationships and bystander intervention;
- modeling respectful behavior;
- teaching students how to recognize the signs that tell them whether they are at risk of entering an abusive relationship or they are already involved in one and how to intervene safely;
- implementing clear policies about reporting teen dating abuse or violence of any kind; and providing counseling services for affected students.
If you, your child, or someone you know is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, it’s important to get help immediately. Abusive partners are unlikely to change their behavior on their own, no matter how often they promise to do so. Counseling services are available with highly trained counselors and therapists at organizations, including ours at Preferred Behavioral Health Group at 732-367-4700. Or you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-331-9474.
This February, it’s vital for all of us to celebrate healthy relationships, recognize those that are not, and provide safety and support for those who need our help.