One of the most-often asked questions of me from high school administrators is if I do programs on Teen Dating Violence. Dating violence is in many ways very similar to bullying, cyberbullying, harassment and intimidation. In bullying, we call the players the bully, the victim and the bystander. In dating violence, the players are similar:
- one person has power over another
- one person is the recipient of the mean, negative and hurtful behavior
- there are the friends of both parties
A couple of months ago, I was approached by a well known psychologist, Carol M. Pedro, who works with teens and families. Carol has many years of experience of working with victims and their families. Carol and I decided to meet regularly in order to discuss teen issues. Our goal is to use our combined experiences to provide a resource for school administrators and parents to help their teens deal with everyday teen issues.
Here are the questions I had for Carol:
- How does a teen become a victim of a boyfriend/girlfriend?
- Why does the teen become an abuser?
- What do we teach our teens who suspect their friends are in some kind of trouble?
- How do teach our teens to understand warning signs of an inappropriate relationship and where to turn to for help in the event of a situation like that?
This is what she said:
Teen Dating has always been a concern for parents. The idea of “letting go” of your child to deal with the mature and responsible issues involved in an intimate relationship can be scary.
- We hope our sons will be respectful, kind and courteous to their dates.
- Young girls are expected to respect themselves enough to establish healthy boundaries and be assertive in the decisions they make involving the dating process.
Unfortunately, this is difficult for some teens. Treading these unknown waters can be dangerous due to inexperience, pressure from peers and their own inner struggle for independence from parents.
Dating violence is a reality. Teenagers can choose better relationships when they are aware of the early warning signs of abuse.
I asked Carol to tell me a real life story. In my experience, teens relate better to a lesson if they know it’s real. Most teens tune out the adult if they feel like they are being lectured. As adults, our goal is for the teen to digest the lesson and apply it to their own lives…to use the lesson as a guide for when they make decisions. If we want teens to listen to what we have to say, it is in my experience that we must be deliberate in how we communicate with them.
Here’s Lucy’s story:
Lucy is 16 and began dating Mark who is 17, about three months ago. She is sharing her frustration with mom’s interference and setting curfews – insisting on meeting Mark’s parents and not allowing them to be unsupervised in her home.
Lucy and her mother come to me for mediation. Mom is worried and shares “I just don’t want her to be hurt….I know how some boys can be.” Lucy is lovestruck and sees Mark through distorted eyes not picking up on possible signs of potential abuse.
Mom has witnessed verbal abuse by Mark raising his voice and pressuring Lucy to do things she later regrets. Lucy has been breaking curfew and spending all her free time with him upset that he won’t “let her” see her friends. In this session, Lucy admits he has threatened to hit her. Lucy became tearful and shares “I don’t know what to do.”
I ask Mom to give Lucy and me time alone. Lucy began to tell me more… Mark’s a really cute guy, but he does say mean things. He tells me I’m fat and no one else will ever want me… I believe him. I asked what your friends say. Lucy answers “I am embarrassed to tell them, they are starting to not like him. Mark picks on them too and hates when I spend time with them.”
Lucy felt alone, scared and unheard. Never having dated before she had no skills, couldn’t see these behaviors as abusive. Mom’s anxiety and need to protect her felt judging and non-supportive to Lucy. I suggested to Lucy’s mother a few things to try:
1) Balance support, love and discipline. “Focus on praise and positives as much as possible.”
2) Restore your sense of authority. “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
3) Remember your child may not know how to ask for help. “Watch all your children’s cues – not just verbal, words can be misleading.” (i.e. “I’m fine”)
4) Keep things in the right perspective. Your child’s health and safety come first. Accept what is not potentially dangerous or permanent (i.e. hair color, clothes, interests, hobbies). “Pick your battles.”
Carol M. Pedro is a licensed therapist at Youth and Family Counseling, 233 Prospect Street, Westfield, NJ (908) 233-2042. www. yfcsnj.org.
-- Jiill Brown