Teens and adults are often unaware that adolescents experience dating violence. More than one in 10 teenagers experience physical violence in a dating relationship, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Teen dating violence was among the most alarming health issues among District of Columbia youth, according to a 2009 Children’s National Health System report assessing the pediatric healthcare needs in the nation’s capital.
Issues can be hidden and subtle
“Dating violence has been reported to occur in potentially as high as 45 percent of young people who are dating. And most teenagers in the United States are dating by middle adolescence (age 14-17). That range is very vulnerable. It is important for all adults to be aware of the symptoms, and the behaviors associated with it because it can very subtle, and it can be manifest in ways that are hard to see,” said Dr. Joseph Wright, Senior Vice President of Community Affairs and the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National.
It’s not unusual for things to change in a teen’s life, but parents should pay close attention to changes that appear suddenly or without a known cause.
Signs of teen dating abuse:
- Worsening school performance
- Withdrawing from activities, interests or family time; or avoiding friends
- Drastic change in appearance
- Visible bruises, scratches or other injuries
Related, but not the same as bullying
Aggression between children is normal, but it’s abnormal and abusive when it rises to the level of repetitive, intentional targeting (and exploits a power relationship), according to Dr. Wright.
Dr. Wright, a pediatrician and an expert on bullying awareness and prevention, said while bullying and teen dating violence share some features such as exploitation of an imbalance of power, teen dating violence is a distinct issue that “deserves its own attention.”
“Parents can appreciate that while the behaviors are on a continuum, teen dating violence deserves its own attention, its own focus, its own index of suspicion by parents, and particularly because parents may not have the same kind of communicative relationship with their teenagers that they have with their younger children,” Dr. Wright said.
How to help your child
- Create a safe space for communication
“One of the challenges that we, as parents, have is the kid may not want to talk when you want to talk, but be available,” he said. For instance, Dr. Wright used time spent carpooling his children to school for “a lot of good conversation.” “Owning that space for me was a time where I had a lot of exchange. Families have to identify for themselves where the sweet spot is in order to encourage that communication.”
- Hyper vigilance is important
As “parents of teenagers you’ve got to be hyper vigilant, but at the same time patient enough to have the young person come to you because I think that the easiest way to shut down a teenager is to really be judgmental, to be close-ended in your dialogue – it’s an easy out for a teenager to have a one-way conversation,” Dr. Wright said. “And I also think that the role of other young people is critically important. So peers in school, siblings, can be really instrumental in recognizing and advising. It takes super vigilance.”
- Give your child an outlet
“It is almost a necessity for our young people to have other outlets outside of the home where they can have somewhere to communicate. Whether that be church, Boys and Girls clubs, other pro-social organizations where kids can feel free to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Dr. Wright said.
“Dating violence really has to be sort of a community issue in terms of awareness and having that index of suspicion,” he said. “The pediatrician can be an information repository. The healthcare provider can advise parents and young people about what to look for, but really the emphasis has to be on appropriately oriented and developed young people themselves.