It starts in a haze of happiness: A new guy, a new love, sweet affection and blinding jealousy. What happens next can range from tears and misery to violence and even death. It’s not just lurid headlines about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Teen dating abuse and violence are reaching epidemic proportions, with 1 in 10 American teens, ages 11-19, being physically attacked by their boy or girl friends, and 1 in 4 verbally or emotionally abused. Read Sunday’s story about what’s happening to our teens, then read on for a list of red flags and things parents can do to help, with advice from experts including Tatiana Colon (photo above), chairman of the Alameda Task Force on Teen Dating Violence, and Elizabeth Miller, pediatrics professor at UC Davis Medical Center.
RED FLAGS FOR TEEN DATING ABUSE & VIOLENCE
Occasional arguments are one thing. But patterns of manipulation, emotional abuse and violence can quickly spiral from mental distress to physical harm. One red flag is a warning. Several mean your teen needs help if his or her boyfriend or girlfriend:
* Belittles your child and makes him or her feel bad.
* Tries to control where she goes, wears or does
* Exhibits signs of extreme jealousy or possessiveness
* Frightens or intimidates
* Threatens harm if your child tries to end the relationship
* Isolates him or her from friends and family
* Has broken or thrown something at him or her in anger
* Has ever hit, slapped, shoved or kicked your child, or forced him or her to have sex
— Excerpted from LoveIsRespect.org
Read on for ways to help…
How Parents Can Help
It starts as a nagging suspicion over tiny, unexplainable things — tears, strange bruises and the exhaustion only sleepless nights can bring. How do you raise the topic when you suspect your child may be the victim of dating abuse? Or when you worry your child may be the aggressor?
It’s important, experts say, that parents take a pragmatic, nonjudgmental tack and start discussing these issues long before there’s a problem.
Start having that conversation, says UC Davis Medical Center’s Elizabeth Miller, long before you need to. The Rihanna case provides a perfect opportunity for that. “We need to give parents the words,” Miller said. “‘It’s terrible that anybody who claims to love someone else would ever think to lay their hands on them, but unfortunately that happens.’ ‘If this ever happens to you, you can come to me and it’s safe.’”
Start talking, she says, about “rules of engagement.” What is dating going to look like for you? What is my hope for you as you explore dating and intimate relationships? What are my expectations?
Tell your child, says Miller, “Nobody deserves to be told what they can do or where they can go. My hope for you, because I love you so much, is that you be with someone who really respects you.”
There are 11-year-olds out there having sex, says Miller. What parent condones that? Dating is inappropriate in middle school, and group dates need to precede one-on-one outings. Families should be treating intimate relationships the same way they do the graduated driver’s license. It’s a learning experience. So talk to kids about the warning signs, set limits around dating, as well as cell phone use and texting.
Foothill Middle School teacher Ron Davis and his wife had those conversations as their seven children hit adolescence — and then they had those talks again and again and again. Their daughters could go to dances and on group outings, but they couldn’t date till they were 17. Unpopular decision?
Heck yes, said Davis, but “I did the same with my boys. And their mother has sat them down and talked to them a lot about respecting girls.”
And watch your own behavior, says Tatiana Colon, chairman of Alameda County’s teen dating abuse task force. Be role models. Demonstrate self-respect, respect for others.
Suspect there may be a problem? Don’t start from the attitude that you know what’s best for your teen, says Tatiana Colon, chairman of Alameda County’s teen dating abuse task force. These issues are far too complex for that approach.
“Be open to what you’re about to hear and understand that your child needs an ally,” said Colon. “Know that this may be a problem with many facets. It’s not just (about) hurt, but ‘how will this play to the student body?’ We try to take that into consideration — how can we help and minimize the adverse effects. We know if you make a big deal, the whole school’s going to know and now we’ve created a martyr and the victim is being victimized again.”
Ask questions: “Do you feel threatened? Are you happy?”
Communicate concern: “I’m worried. I’m afraid for you, what you’re telling me sounds a lot like this cycle. When you’re ready, I’m here.”
And remember, those hotlines aren’t just for people in the throes of abuse. They’re also for teens who suspect they may be aggressors, and parents and friends who don’t know how to help.
* National Teen Dating Abuse 24/7 Helpline: 1-866-331-9474, www.loveisrespect.org
* Family Violence Law Center: This Oakland-based group runs a teen dating abuse hot line, 510-208-0255, www.fvlc.org/rap
* STAND: A Contra Costa domestic abuse shelter and hot line 1-888-215-5555, www.standagainstdv.org
* Love is Not Abuse: Liz Claiborne Foundation teen dating violence prevention Web site offers warning signs, resources and talking points, and “Love is Not Abuse” curriculum for schools, www.loveisnotabuse.com
* MADE (Moms and Dads for Education to Stop Teen Dating Abuse): Claiborne’s advocacy group lobbies schools and lawmakers to include teen abuse prevention curriculum in local schools; the Web site, www.loveisnotabuse.com/made/, includes fact sheets, tool kits and letter templates for parents
* Heather’s Voice: A teen dating violence prevention site, heathersvoice.net