Dating Violence and Teens

Carol* was a pretty, smart sixteen-year-old when she started going steady with a boy in her class at New Canaan High School. He treated her like a princess, and she was thrilled with the lavish attention. She never dreamed that this sweet, adoring young man would gradually turn cruel, take over her life, torment her day and night, and one day try to kill her.    *not her real name

Nothing can match the euphoria of teenage love — those achingly poignant moments of innocent bliss. The object of my teenage devotion was Mike Pastore, from sixth grade straight through to the 1983 Staples High School senior prom. The power of that puppy love was overwhelming, and my dreamy idealism made me vulnerable in ways I didn’t even understand. Fortunately, although Mike broke my heart a number of times, I was never a victim of abuse, but that may have been just random luck.

Let’s face it — most of us think dating violence doesn’t happen much in our towns. Among our teenagers? No way. We know our kids, we’re involved in their lives, we instill in them self-esteem and values that protect them from abusive relationships. Right?

Not so much. “Domestic and dating violence happens in all socioeconomic groups and virtually all ethnic groups,” says Barbara Heffernan, executive director of the Domestic Violence Crisis Center (DVCC), which has offices in Stamford and Norwalk and also serves the towns of New Canaan, Darien, Westport, Weston and Wilton. In fact the latest numbers indicate that teens in our state are at a higher risk for experiencing physical dating violence than those in other parts of the country. In the 2005 Connecticut School Health Survey, 16 percent of students in grades nine to twelve indicated that they had been hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past twelve months. The national rate for this age group is 9 percent.

Why is the rate so much higher here? Jeanne Milstein, child advocate for the State of Connecticut, says there is no definitive answer. It may be a result of the high rate of teen drinking and recreational drug use in our area, or perhaps teen dating problems are denied or hidden, allowing them to fester. On the other hand, “It also might be that we have more kids who acknowledge the problem,” she says.

Whatever the reason, experts believe that overall numbers are low due to underreporting — which means the problem is huge. Depending on which research you look at, somewhere around 20 percent to 30 percent of teenage girls report being victims of dating violence.» Exact definitions of the term vary, but organizations that study the problem concur on one important factor — dating violence leaves scars that can be emotional as well as physical.

Carol’s Story
Abuse Masked as Love

It was her junior year at New Canaan High School. Her soon-to-be abuser was known to be a nice guy, well liked by the other kids, and Carol was thrilled when he asked her out. “We started dating and he was very attentive. He took me places, always wanted to spend time with me, called me all the time. It was great. Nothing made me suspect what would come down the road.”

The first warning sign came as Carol started to find herself increasingly isolated from her friends and family. “I’d invite him to a party with friends or dinner with my family and he would say, ‘I haven’t had any alone time with you lately. Why don’t we just stay in?’” She was flattered by his devotion. “He told me early on in the relationship that he loved me, but he would get angry because I wasn’t ready to reciprocate. I realize, looking back, that was another warning sign,” she says.

Emotional abuse came next. “He started with put-downs. ‘Your chest is too small’ or too big, or ‘your hair looks bad today,’ ‘you’re wearing too much makeup’ or ‘why aren’t you wearing makeup?’ It would always fluctuate. One day I could wear a short skirt and I looked great, and the next day I could wear the same skirt and it was ‘you’re a slut.’ It wasn’t about his true likes and dislikes, it was about his having control over me.”

Eventually Carol tried to break up with him. But he bought her gifts and pleaded with her and promised he would try harder. So she took him back, and soon, little by little, the abuse escalated.

“He started to raise his voice and get more irate. He might bang on a table or pretend to hit me. One time, he backed me up against a locker and went to punch me but punched the locker instead,” she says.

He became increasingly jealous and possessive. He questioned her about everything. Where were you? Who were you with? If he didn’t believe her, he got violent. “He would hit me, kick me, pull my hair, pinch and twist the skin under my arm, punch my thighs. He never hit me in the face, because he knew I couldn’t hide my face. But I would wear long pants, long sleeves and turtlenecks to cover up my bruises.”

Carol’s abuser followed her to college, where the physical abuse escalated. He tried to kill her on three separate occasions. Once, he strangled her until she was unconscious and then, in the nick of time, let go.

“He would say, ‘I could kill you and bury you and nobody would even notice you were gone, because you’re worthless, you don’t add anything to this world.’ When you hear these things over and over again, you believe them.”

Why didn’t she tell anyone or call the police? First, over the years of being mostly with him, her other relationships had weakened or disappeared. But more importantly, she says, “I was scared out of my mind that he would kill me.” She feared that the police wouldn’t believe her, or they would just talk to him and send him home. Either way, when he found out, she believed with utter certainty that he would kill her. “Even today, if you get assaulted by somebody, they don’t get locked up. How was I going to prove attempted murder? No way!

I would be dead the next day,” she says. So she stayed with him until the middle of college when, finally, she broke it off by hiding for a long time and never going anywhere alone. She will never know exactly why he didn’t hunt her down, but to this day she feels very lucky to be alive.

Today Carol is passionate about educating teens on the topic of dating violence. She says that if there had been any kind of awareness and education about what is acceptable and unacceptable in healthy dating relationships, she might have gotten out of her nearly fatal relationship before it caused so much damage. “The emotional scars are way deeper than the physical ones,” she says. “I’m middle-aged now and I still have nightmares. This guy comes back full screen, full color.”

What is Dating Violence?

The National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) defines dating violence as “controlling, abusive and aggressive behavior in a romantic relationship. It can happen in straight or gay relationships. [And it] can include verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or a combination of them.”

Dating violence in the teen years often happens in relationships that get serious before teens are ready to handle it. To them it may feel like love, and the
exaggerated attention may even seem cute or funny. (“He sent me twenty-eight text messages today!”) What they don’t realize is that emotional manipulation through obsessive attention, monitoring, pressuring and teasing can represent the first phase of a nasty progression into physical and sexual abuse.

At Darien High School, Kenyon Colli, a senior who has taken dating violence volunteer training at the DVCC, sees quite a few of these signs in her peers’ relationships. “The problem is that, among teens, signs of abuse are more subtle,” she says. “Instead of what you see in adult relationships — hitting, financial abuse, things like that — at our age, it’s a lot of sexual pressure. Couples will break up because the girl won’t have sex, and there’s pressure to drink because some people believe that their girlfriend or boyfriend will be more likely to sleep with them if they drink.” She also sees emotional abuse in the form of put-downs. “Boys will flat out tell their girlfriends they’re fat — then you see these girls ending up in therapy for eating disorders.”

Is it about sex? Despite what many people think, research shows that is not the case. Controlling, coercive, abusive behavior in relationships is not a result of raging male hormones, nor is it caused by teenage girls’ provocative clothing.

“Dating or domestic violence has no link to sexual promiscuity or the way you dress,” says Barbara Heffernan. “You find it in Orthodox communities where women are dressed from head to toe, you have it in traditional Arabic communities where women don’t show any skin. There really is zero relationship between those issues. The underlying issue of dating violence is power and control.”

Paige Hall Smith, an associate professor of public health education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, has conducted research on dating violence. “It’s important to remember that the proportion of women who are abused in some way by the end of college is incredibly high, and this suggests that factors in our culture and environment are involved,” she says. In other words, dating violence doesn’t happen only to meek and insecure girls or those who are affected by problems at home or in their family history. In fact, says Paige, “There is no good evidence that women’s personality characteristics contribute in any way.”

Susan Delaney, director of education and outreach at DVCC, says that parents should be aware of some classic indications of dating violence. And while one of these signs alone may not mean anything, a pattern should raise a red flag.

“Sometimes it’s the Eddie Haskell (a character from Leave it to Beaver), the nicest boy — the parents are in love with the kid,” says Susan. “But if you see these things and you have a gut reaction, follow your instincts. The biggest one is simple: If your child is not happy, there’s something wrong.”

Signs to watch for

  • Constant phone calls from the girlfriend or boyfriend, tracking his/her whereabouts
  • The boyfriend or girlfriend appearing unexpectedly just to “check up”
  • A change in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Frequent anxiety about upsetting the boyfriend or girlfriend (“I have to be back by 6 o’clock because he’s going to call.”)
  • Isolation from friends or a sudden change in friends
  • A drop in grades (because the boyfriend or girlfriend takes up so much time)
  • Quitting work or other after-school activities
  • Becoming withdrawn or less confident (because someone is telling them they’re not pretty, they’re fat, they’re a loser, etc.)
  • Unexplained bruises or injuries
  • Dressing differently (to hide bruises or marks)

Portrait of a Problem

  • More than one-third of teenagers in dating relationships have experienced some physical violence.
  • 1 in 4 high school students is or has been involved in an abusive relationship.
  • Jealousy is the leading cause of dating violence.
  • Only 1 out of 25 victims of dating violence ever seeks the help of a teacher, police officer or counselor.
  • Only about 4 out of 10 relationships end after the onset of violence or abuse.
  • Among female victims, the most common response to the violence was fear, followed closely by being emotionally hurt. Male victims were more likely to respond that they thought it was funny or that the violence made them angry.
  • 42 percent of boys and 43 percent of girls said that the abuse occurred in a school building or on school grounds.

Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence

Why Don’t They Tell?
As Carol’s story illustrates, teens are reluctant to report crimes against them. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that people aged twelve to nineteen report only 35.7 percent of crimes against themselves, compared with 54 percent of twenty- to forty-nine-year-olds. They are particularly unlikely to tell on someone they are dating.

“Kids still think they’re ratting out their friends,” says Kenyon, whose volunteer work with DVCC earned her the Stamford Advocate’s 2006 Community Leader of the Year (youth category) award. “And they’re afraid to talk about [dating violence] because of the social implications.”

They may be afraid that it will get the person arrested. (If a teen confides in an adult about a violent act, the adult may be  required by law to report it as a crime against a minor.) They may not want to tell their parents about some part of an incident, or they may fear retaliation by their peers. Finally, research consistently shows that adolescents have a surprisingly high level of acceptance of violence in dating relationships.

“Kids are bombarded by cultural portrayals of abusive attitudes and behaviors toward women in music and movies,” says Susan Delaney of DVCC. “Also, there’s pressure in our society for kids, male and female, to have a partner, a date, a boyfriend or girlfriend. So sometimes having someone who may be abusive is better than not having anyone at all.”

Susan emphasizes that young men can be victims as well as young women. “The statistic for women is one out of every three will be a victim, and for men it’s one in fourteen. But young men tend to be really embarrassed by it, and don’t want anyone to know that they ‘can’t handle’ their girlfriend. They feel that admitting being hurt by a woman will make them seem less of a man. They also may not think it is dating violence, they may not have that label for it.”

And if there is one thing we know about teens, it is that they are loath to confide in adults. According to Elaine Schwartz, director of guidance at Staples High School, relationship issues generally reach her office only in circuitous ways. “Very often, kids will come to us to talk — not about themselves but about something they see going on with a friend. Or a teacher will notice something and ask us to pull a kid out and have a talk to see if anything is wrong.”

Is There a Cure?
Government and community organizations are making great strides in raising awareness about dating violence. Some schools have made antiviolence programming a priority, though it has yet to become a standard part of school curricula. Influencing teen relationships is a slippery slope, but experts agree that violence needs to be addressed and that the best arenas for this education are school and home.

Parental involvement does make a difference. According to the Connecticut School Health Survey, students who say that their parents usually know their whereabouts are approximately 30 percent less likely to experience dating violence (and 50 percent less likely to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes).

The DVCC conducts school-based programs on dating violence starting in the eighth grade, and many area schools have participated. “We teach them to recognize excessive control and the pattern that most domestic violence and dating violence follows,” says Barbara Heffernan. “We help them understand the issue of power and control and help them recognize what is healthy and not healthy in relationships.”

At New Canaan High School, health educator Eric Swallow gives related presentations in conjunction with the DVCC programs. He teaches students in grades nine through twelve to think critically about their own perceptions of the opposite sex and dating relationships. This year Swallow plans to ask all the boys to write out and role-play their prom date. “I’m going to ask them what their expectations are for the night, what exactly they envision happening from beginning to end. It will force them to think about their mindsets. I think a lot of kids get in trouble because they don’t think things through and instead act impulsively.”

Thaddea Brown, a child advocate with DVCC, holds a weekly “Healthy Relationships” group for girls at Norwalk High School. About fifteen girls meet for an hour, eat pizza, and talk about a wide range of subjects related to relationships.

“They’re surprisingly willing to talk,” says Thaddea. “I try to help them recognize the difference between someone who cares and someone who’s being controlling. We do activities to help them figure out what are the things they will and will not put up with. And I teach them that people learn how to treat you by your reactions to them.”

Last year at Darien High School, Kenyon organized the first Domestic Violence Awareness Day on October 27. More than 100 students got involved. They wore purple ribbons and bracelets, many signed a banner speaking out against domestic violence, others watched a video or made pamphlets about dating violence.

“After that day several kids decided to go through the DVCC training that I did,” Kenyon reported. “Others offered to keep the awareness day activities going after
I graduate. Hopefully this issue will now be out in the open, at least in Darien.”

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