By Colleen Brady, Health Educator
In the wake of the murder of Yeardley Love by her University of Virginia classmate George Huguely, we were all forced to confront the ugly reality of abuse and violence in teen and young adult relationships. Just after Love’s tragic death, The Baltimore Sun reported that “distraught students are searching their memories for warning signs they might have missed.” Indeed, parents and many other concerned adults are still asking: how could this have happened? Could it have been prevented?
Parents need to be asking these questions while their children are still living at home. If we teach our pre-teens and teens what a healthy relationship looks and feels like, if we teach them how to recognize and deal with the warning signs of an unhealthy dating situation, we will decrease their chances of becoming involved in abusive relationships when they are on their own as young adults.
Yeardley Love’s life was taken as the result of physical abuse. But there are also other types of abuse in relationships which are damaging. Verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse may not leave the target with visible bruises – but they still leave deep and lasting scars.
Here’s a fact that may astonish you. According to a recent survey conducted by Liz Claiborne Inc. and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, nearly 1 in 3 teenagers who have been in a relationship report experiencing actual sexual or other physical abuse, or threats of physical abuse.
Constant criticism and excessive possessiveness can constitute emotional abuse. Verbal abuse may involve degrading comments, while unwanted physical demands can be considered sexual abuse. New technology has made it possible for an abuser to attack a target verbally and emotionally through text messages or instant messages. The abuser can also check up on the target through a cell phone or computer.
What all of these forms of abuse have in common is that the abuser ultimately wants to control the actions of the target. This is usually done by isolating the target from friends and family. A lot of this behavior goes on “under the radar.”
The scary thing is that parents are often not aware that their children are being abused in their relationships. Teachers and other adults in their lives may also not notice anything amiss. But, parents, here are some signs that your teen may be in trouble. Is your teen:
- Becoming more isolated from family and friends?
- Changing friends, routines or activities?
- Jumping when the phone rings or constantly checking the phone?
- Apologizing or making excuses for his/her partner’s actions?
- Unable to give a satisfactory explanation of an injury?
If you notice any of these changes, talk to your child. Reassure your child of your love and your desire to keep her or him safe. Give your child an opportunity to tell you if there is a problem. Listen, and let your child know you will look for ways to help.
Communication is one of the best ways to prevent our youth from becoming targets of relationship abuse. As a parent, you have an important role to play, and you can be a positive influence in teaching your child to make healthy choices.
- Talk about the different types of abuse with your children, and explain how to recognize an abusive relationship.
- Explore the many websites about the subject. (MTV is a great one.)
- Talk about what happened to Yeardley Love, and encourage your teen to express his or her reactions and questions.
- Convey your values surrounding healthy relationships, and model them yourself.
Finally, encourage your children not to be bystanders if they notice that one of their friends is in trouble. Tell them to be supportive, encourage their friend to talk to an adult, and provide information about sites like www.loveisnotabuse.com and www.thinkmtv.com, or the phone number of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE. Local resources are 211 on your phone, or the CHANA Hotline (Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women) at 410-234-0023.
The hope for preventing future tragedies lies in educating our children, parents and other adults and empowering them to speak up and act to protect themselves and each other.
By Colleen Brady, Health Educator, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD.