From installing baby gates to fastening bike helmets and seat belts, parents put their kids' safety first. But once kids hit adolescence, the risks can become less obvious. When it comes to teen dating violence, for example, many parents are blind to the risk and so don't offer the help their children may need. Even when parents recognize teen dating abuse, their attempts to intervene can be off-target and often go ignored.
Given the alarming prevalence of teen dating abuse, all parents should become educated on risks and warning signs. Simply recognizing abuse, however, isn't enough, say experts featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Dating. Parents also need to know how to talk to their teens when they suspect abuse, or they risk pushing their child closer to the abuser.
Learn to identify abuse and follow these steps to create your own teen dating-abuse action plan.
Many parents falsely assume their child isn't at risk for dating abuse. In truth, teen dating abuse affects both males and females in all parts of the country and from all walks of life. One in 10 high school students reports being hit, slapped or physically hurt by his or her boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And one in four adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse by their boyfriend or girlfriend.
The numbers are just as worrisome for young adults in college. According to Liz Claiborne Inc.'s Love Is Not Abuse 2011 College Dating Violence and Abuse Poll, nearly half of dating college women report having experienced violent or abusive behavior at some point in their dating lives, and one in five report actual physical or sexual abuse or threats of physical violence.
Even if young people aren't being abused themselves, chances are they know someone who is. According to surveys conducted by Liz Claiborne Inc. and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, 80 percent of teens reported knowing someone who has been a victim of controlling behaviors from a boyfriend or girlfriend. And more than half of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent or abusive dating behavior.
"The reality is this is an issue that could affect anyone at any time. None of us are immune from it," says Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle, a leading national nonprofit organization addressing teen dating violence and one of the experts featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Domestic Violence. "Smart or not so smart, wealthy or not so wealthy, it doesn't matter what color you are or what you believe. This issue affects everyone."
Despite the prevalence of teen dating abuse, many parents remain uninformed. Of teens who reported being victims of physical abuse, only 10 percent of their parents were aware of the abuse, according to a 2009 survey.
That may be because parents are missing the signs. Abuse can take many forms and doesn't always result in obvious bruises or cuts. This list of potential warning signs, compiled by the National Teen Dating Helpline, can help parents determine if their teen is in an abusive relationship.
Source: Love is Respect
Digital abuse, or the use of technologies such as texting and social networking to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner, can be particularly difficult for parents to spot. Yet more than half (56 percent) of teens have been victims of social and digital media abuse, according to the 2011 AP-MTV Digital Abuse Study.
The average teen exchanges nearly 3,500 messages each month, according to Nielsen, which makes it hard for parents to distinguish between typical teen behavior and digital abuse.
A high volume of texts alone is not necessarily worrisome, Gilberg says. Rather, it's the nature of the texts between relationship partners that can raise concern. "If there's a lot of the 'w' questions–where are you, who are you with, what are you doing, why are you doing it, when are you going to call me–that's not healthy behavior," she explains.
Gilberg advises parents pay close attention to their phone bill. "You can't necessarily monitor the number of texts they're receiving from somebody else, but you certainly can check your phone records to see who the texts are coming from. And you can see if there's an inordinate volume from one particular person," she says.
Parents who suspect that their teen is a victim of digital abuse or controlling behavior should tread cautiously, Gilberg and other experts advise. According to one study, 78 percent of teens who have experienced dating abuse reported staying in relationships despite their parents' advice.
While a parent's first instinct may be to forbid all future contact with the suspected abuser, that's not always the best approach. "Saying 'you can't see him, you can't see her; you can't go here, you can't go there,' often drives them closer to the abuser," Gilberg cautions. A more effective approach may be to show the teen that parents support him or her, no matter what.
"A lot of times, someone who's in an abusive relationship is being isolated from their support system, and so it is critical that they know that they have you, even if the decisions they're making for themselves are not the most healthy decisions," Gilberg says.
And keep talking, even if it seems like your teen isn't listening, advises Britney, a college senior who escaped an abusive relationship in high school. Britney is one of the young adults featured in Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Dating Abuse. "We look up to you more than you know, and even when we don't show it, it means so much to us when you give us your advice."
See more of Britney and other teens and young adults discussing dating violence at Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Dating Abuse.
Parents should make a point of empowering their teens by letting them know they are entitled to respect and love and that no form of abuse is acceptable. "Don't judge, offer help," Gilberg says. "Let them know that you're concerned for their safety. Give them tangible examples of things that may be red flags without pointing fingers, calling names or judging their partner." If you suspect a teen is in physical danger, offer this Teen Safety Plan from the National Teen Dating Helpline.
If a teenager won't confide in parents, be sure he or she knows there are other sources of help. Point teens to LoveIsRespect.org (the website of the National Teen Dating Helpline), encourage them to call the Helpline at 1-866-331-9474, or tell them to text "loveis" to 77054 for support and help from a peer advocate. Confidential help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Parents need to recognize that they're not always going to be the person that their kid's going to talk to about a personal concern," Gilberg says. "One of the things parents can do is go into the schools, make sure your school has a program on healthy relationships. Find resources in the community. Even if they're not going to come to you, there may be somebody else in their life that can help them."