Parents often dread the first time their child heads out on a date, worrying about emerging hormones and the emotions in play. However, there is a greater threat to your teen’s well-being than a broken heart. According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, one in five girls between 12 and 18 years old experienced teen dating violence.
Teen dating violence is physical, emotional or sexual abuse between two teenagers in a relationship. Dating violence can include being hit, kicked or shoved by a partner; being shamed, bullied or verbally demeaned; or being forced into sexual encounters. This abuse often takes place face-to-face, but can occur over the telephone, through text messaging, via social media platforms or online.
Dating violence is a problem that reflects behavioral issues involving power and control. Relationships between teenagers typically do not start abusively, but may develop over time. The cycle starts with a tension-building phase, where the couple may have an argument or disagreement, and that leads to a violent incident. The violence is often followed by attempts at reconciliation, during which the abuser provides excuses, is remorseful and may even agree to seek help or counseling. Then there is a calm phase, or “honeymoon period,” prior to the next argument or disagreement that ultimately triggers a return to the tension-building phase. It becomes a cycle of abuse.
This theory explains how young girls can become caught in a cycle that is hard to break. Many adult women experience a similar pattern of abuse in domestic violence situations.
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Factors that increase your child’s risk for experiencing dating violence include witnessing domestic violence in the home, earlier sexual activity, multiple sex partners and having friends who also are involved in dating violence. Some signs that your teen or someone you know is in an abusive relationship include making excuses for their partner’s poor behavior, becoming more critical about themselves, having unexplained scratches or bruises, being increasingly secretive, displaying sadness and/or crying, and having friendships disrupted.
Teen dating violence is associated with short-term and long-term effects, such as increased risk of anxiety and depression, higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts or attempts and engagement in unhealthy behaviors, such as drug, alcohol and tobacco use. And it’s not just teenage girls who are victims. A recent study showed that male teens who had experienced dating violence were nine times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to use hard drugs like cocaine and twice as likely to use marijuana and alcohol.
The good news is that there are ways to prevent teen dating violence:
▪ Educate yourself and your teen about dating violence.
▪ Model healthy behaviors in your home.
▪ Be aware of risk factors.
▪ Effectively communicate with your teen.
▪ Treat others with respect. Educational programming in our schools also promotes healthy relationships. It is in accordance with a Florida statute that requires schools to incorporate information about teen dating violence and its prevention into the health education curriculum. The statute also dictates that schools should not tolerate teen dating violence, and should act as safe havens for students who find themselves in violent relationships.
Dating violence is potentially preventable when organizations and communities come together. Parents or teens experiencing dating violence can call the National Teen Dating Violence Hotline at 1-866-331-9474 or the Florida Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119. For more information, parents and youth can visit www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention.
Margaret Lott, M.D., is a second-year medicine-pediatrics resident and Lawrence B. Friedman, M.D., is director of adolescent medicine for the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.