It's a sobering statistic that may surprise many parents and teachers: as many as 40 percent of teens (male and female) have been in physically abusive relationships, and the figure is even higher for those who say they've been in an emotionally abusive relationship (up to 96 percent).
Christie Rizzo, PhD, a child psychologist with the Bradley/Hasbro Children's Research Center and an active researcher on adolescent dating violence, says that many parents are in the dark about their child's situation because teens are very good at hiding the signs of abuse. However, just because they may not see outward signs of violence, there are a number of other warning signs that parents can look for.
"Depression is strongly associated with dating violence, so if your teen is doing poorly in school or isolating themselves from their friends, these may indicate that he or she is in an unhealthy relationship," says Rizzo.
Sometimes, teens may not even realize they're experiencing early signs of abuse. A predominant indicator of an abusive relationship is extreme jealousy, but adolescents new to romantic relationships may equate jealousy with love, and think jealousy is a good thing.
"If you notice that your teen is constantly responding (by phone, text messages, or on the computer) to their partner because of fear of what will happen if they don't respond right away, if your teen is handing over Facebook and AIM passwords to their partner so he/she can keep track of their social networking activity, or if your teen has isolated themselves from friends to devote time to the partner; these are good markers that something is not right," says Rizzo.
Rizzo maintains that the most important thing for parents is to have an ongoing dialogue with their teen.
"Kids are so inexperienced with dating, they don't recognize that a partner 's extreme jealousy is a form of abuse, so if you encourage an open and ongoing dialogue, you're more likely to have your teen report to you," she says.
For parents who might not know where to start, Rizzo suggests they begin by talking about what is healthy in a relationship versus what is not.
"Kids need to hear from their parents that their partner should not be controlling their behavior, and that jealousy is not a sign of love, but of psychological abuse," she says; "modeling a healthy romantic relationship at home helps too."
Another tactic is to encourage teens to date in groups and to have an exit strategy if they get in an uncomfortable situation.
"Parents and teachers can help teens understand that drinking and drugs make people more vulnerable to sexual violence, and also make it clear that you can be raped by someone you're in a relationship with," says Rizzo.
However, parents should also realize that breaking off an abusive relationship can be very difficult for a teenager.
"First of all, adolescents may interpret the jealousy and controlling behavior in their partner as a sign that they're loved, secondly, there's an enormous amount of peer pressure for teens to be dating and in a relationship, and third of all, teens are scared that if they leave the relationship, they won't find anyone else," explains Rizzo.
Often teens may try to end a relationship but go right back so parents have the added responsibility of helping their child keep firm in his or her decision, and stay away from the abusive partner.
Rizzo explains that dating violence often involves mutual abuse; both boys and girls each are perpetrators and victims, though girls are more likely to have the serious injuries because they're typically smaller and weaker than boys.
"A good percentage of the time, females are violent because they're engaging in a self-defense response, but sometimes they're violent towards a partner, and thus more hesitant to leave the relationship or talk about the abuse because they think 'well it's my fault because I hit him too, so I don't want him to get in trouble,' she says.
According to Rizzo, the key to stopping dating violence is to talk about it. Teens may be experiencing psychological violence and not put it in the same level of seriousness as physical abuse, but data show that a victim of psychological abuse is more likely to experience physical violence down the road.
"It's alarming how prevalent it is, and it's an especially important issue to discuss with adolescents because they don't have much experience with relationships," says Rizzo.
Adolescent Relationships Research
Christie Rizzo, PhD
If you need help talking to your teen about dating violence, call Bradley Hospital at 401-432-1364.