September 19th, 2011

The perils of ‘puppy love’ bring teen dating violence to the forefront

If you walk out of your office and pass a gaggle of kids in your community, one of them has been abused by their boyfriend or girlfriend. The numbers vary depending which national organization you listen to, but whether it’s one in 10, one in five, or one in three, the statistics for dating violence among youth are unsettling. Worse, two of three teens know someone in their circle who is being harmed by a partner.

Adolescent dating violence can mirror adult domestic violence, so most professionals could recognize the signs. But with teens’ rapture with social media and today’s tools for keeping tabs on nearly anyone we wish, local governments are increasing efforts to teach what is and isn’t romance, and psychologists are becoming more vigilant about evaluating behaviors previously called “puppy love.”

Brian D. Wener, Psy.D., has been in private practice for 25 years in Portsmouth, N.H., where he is also a Portsmouth Family Institute faculty member and guest lectures at University of New Hampshire’s marriage and family therapy graduate program. Through treating adolescents, and counseling adult clients through abuse and neglect, Wener says the gateway behaviors in adolescent dating violence can escalate as they do in adults.

“The power and control issues are the same,” says Wener. “The boyfriend/girlfriend gives clear messages to the significant other, including pressures, that they are to be the priority in the significant other’s life….This can later escalate to threats of harm if and when the significant other resists these tactics. Physical violence and even murder can occur if the adolescent feels that he/she is losing the affection and domination of the significant other, as seen in several such cases around the country.”

A key societal element has increased the ways teens can torture each other. “Adolescents today are far more influenced through communication technologies that didn’t exist back then, like texting and social networking,” says Wener. Guilt, isolation, relentless emails and phone calls to “check on” each other are manipulative tools used to keep partners proverbially in line.

Susan Delaney directs PeaceWorks, a K-12 violence prevention education program offered through the Domestic Violence Crisis Center (DVCC) in Stamford, Conn. PeaceWorks starts with teaching seventh graders about kind and mindful behavior, and runs through 12th-grade programming that readies college-age men and women for what loving and appropriate relationships should look like. PeaceWorks presents programming to about 25,000 youth each year.

“I want to start kids at the sixth-grade level,” says Delaney, who has worked with the 15-year-old program since its inception and been with DVCC since 1986. “We ask kids, ‘What is respect? Is it okay to have someone tell you what to eat, how you should eat?’ We want to empower them to think, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated that way.’”

Several years ago in Essex, Mass., District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett formed a Teen Dating Violence Office that has disseminated a brochure and video about how both boys and girls are at risk of abusive loves. The office also runs monthly round-table discussions across the district highlighting the behaviors some may not consider “abusive,” but are.
“Just because you really like someone a lot doesn’t mean they can know where you are 24/7 or tell you what to wear to school,” says Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokesperson for the district attorney. “I think [obsessive behavior] often gets mistaken for, ‘Oh, it’s young love, it’s just drama. But it’s shocking to the district attorney. A lot of adults don’t see it, and kids think it’s okay.”

“Some degree of abuse in dating – in the sense of criticizing a girl’s body, holding her up to an unrealistically high standard, cheating, sexual pressure – happens with fairly high frequency,” says Lawrence D. Ludwig, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Fairfield, Conn. for 36 years. His advice to psychologists: be aware. For young women, especially insecure ones, there is a tremendous need for validation from their relationship with her boyfriend. If there is abuse, Ludwig says it “is something that can have a powerful negative effect in her early developmental life in terms of relationships.”

Nationally, 86 percent of domestic violence victims are women but Delaney says the statistics are skewed because of how much goes unreported. “PeaceWorks’ curriculum is designed for both sexes, in part to educate boys on what it means to be a thoughtful man, but also to make them aware that women may not physically hurt them, but they can abuse in different ways,” she says.

“Many adult men may think, ‘Oh I’m not going to tell anyone [about my abuse] because there’s no one to tell.’ But we do listen,” says Delaney.

By Jennifer E Chase

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