"Your boyfriend is sooo sweet, Ashley. He must really love you. Calling you all the time, and always checking up on you, my boyfriend isn't that concerned about me and what I'm doing. But you look so depressed, what's the matter with you?" Ashley couldn't explain it to her friend. All she knew was that her relationship with her boyfriend didn't feel quite right. She quickly brushed a tear from her puffy, tender cheek before her friend saw it. At first, it seemed like he really cared. All his attention was flattering, but now, if she even speaks to another boy he gets angry-so angry he will hit her.
It may be hard to imagine a young girl in a dating relationship facing the problem of domestic violence, but it happens more often than we might think.
"It's more and more frequent than any of us realize," said Nancy Seamount, counselor and health teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School. "I hear lots of confusion about what love is. It's endemic in this teen-age population. Girls misinterpret the boys' attempts to control as protective and loving," she said. One local teen illustrated the confusion many in her age group share about boys who are violent towards their girlfriends. They want to protect and watch out for you, but sometimes they go about it the wrong way. Following the pattern of other kinds of domestic violence, the relationships don't start out that way.
These relationships usually begin relatively happy, but then the issues of control and abuse come out very slowly, Mary Tonsmiere, a nurse at the Teen Health Center said. Some of the adolescent relationships involve hitting, pushing, and hurting each other. Then there is the other kind of abuse, that undercuts self-worth and self esteem. A JDHS student said that low self-esteem often plays a role in keeping teen girls involved with boys they don't particularly like, "Lots of girls I know, even if they don't like a guy, will go out with him," she said. They want to show people that they're a desirable person.
Believing that their worth as human beings is determined by association with another person, many teens are predisposed to a lifetime of abuse by their partners. And for children raised in violent homes, they may consider the violence a part of normal relationships. Protecting our teens from becoming victims of violent relationships is not as easy as it might first seem.
Many teens will not voluntarily talk to their parents about these problems because they fear judgment, punishment, or a lack of serious consideration of their feelings for their partner. Parents must be alert to signs that their child may be involved in a controlling or violent relationship. Parents should look for significant mood changes, according to Tonsmiere, activities their child is withdrawing from that they normally enjoyed doing. Parents must also consider the examples of healthy relationships they model for their children, and then be willing to talk openly about love, healthy boundaries, and their expectations of a relationship.
Education is the key to preventing teen dating violence, Seamount said. We have to teach our boys and girls that these are not ways to behave in healthy relationships. The best time to get out of an unhealthy relationship is in the beginning. Understanding and being able to identify the symptoms of a dysfunctional relationship early is critical. Without intervention, young women like Ashley have a bleak future, with an uncertain sense of themselves and the kind of respect and caring they deserve. If you know someone who needs help, or would like more information about teen dating violence and how to prevent it, call AWARE at 1-800-478-1080.