CHARLENEM and Nisa Muhammad
(FinalCall.com) – Once upon a time, a teen date involved seemingly harmless activities such as a trip for fast food and maybe the movies, but today, increasing numbers of teen girls are subjected to dating abuse and violence.
For 16-year-old Mia Williams, dating started out nicely. The young man was sweet and kind. She thought he was the right kind of guy for her, but things started to change. She was not sure what happened.
“He really wanted to do it (have sex) and said that if I loved him then I would want to do it too,” Miss Williams told The Final Call. That’s when the trouble started. He became controlling and abusive, always telling me what to do, where to go and what I couldn’t do. It got real crazy.”
“One day, when I just got fed up, I told him, ‘Look. You’re not my father and I don’t have to do what you say.’ That’s when he slapped me,” she said.
According to violence prevention advocates, this type of teen dating violence is on the rise among America’s youth population.
Teen dating violence is a type of intimate physical, emotional, or sexual violence between people who are in a close relationship. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has determined it a public health problem that leads to poor performance in school, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, depression, and even suicide.
According to the CDC, 72 percent of 8th and 9th graders reportedly “date” and 1 in 4 adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from a dating partner each year. About 10 percent of students nationwide said they were physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past 12 months.
“I never thought I would be the girl getting hit by her boyfriend but I was. He made me think it was my fault and if I would just act right it wouldn’t happen. I believed it too at first. Then I heard my mom talking to a friend of hers who was married and whose husband hit her and my mom told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Miss Williams.
“That got me thinking about my situation and I told my mom. She hit the roof. She told me to break up with him and that she would get me help. I didn’t even know I needed help,” she added.
Most people don’t, according Cristina Escobar, senior coordinator of development and communications for Break the Cycle, which addresses dating violence exclusively. Usually when people think about unhealthy relationships, they think about adults, not youth But teens imitate adult behavior and are not immune to domestic violence, she said.
Ms. Escobar cautioned that dating violence is not restricted to children with low self-esteem, or who live in dysfunctional families. The reason people miss the seriousness of it is because there is a tendency to dismiss young relationships as puppy love and just a part of growing up.
Ms. Escobar explained that the problem can begin as early as 12- years-old and isolation is the easiest sign to spot. Youth might see their friends starting to withdraw from their friends, families, and activities that used to define them or give them pleasure, or drawing away from the world. One person’s world gets smaller while the other person’s world gets bigger.
Another early warning sign is control.
“A lot of relationships struggle and talk about who wears the pants and makes the decisions, but it’s really looking for those instances where you feel you’re constantly walking on eggshells, or whether it be in picking who you talk to, when you talk to them, what you wear, that feeling of constantly being on edge is really a strong warning sign that something’s not right there,” Ms. Escobar told The Final Call.
Break the Cycle urges youth who find themselves in an abusive relationship to talk to a friend, parent, teacher, or counselor, someone they trust to support them and to create a safety plan ahead of time to avoid a serious, dangerous situation.
“We’re raised in a culture that says it’s okay for violence to be our way of [resolving] issues so we focus on that. We don’t know how to dialogue, negotiate, or have conversations, so we grow up with these issues,” said Sulaiman Nuriddin, men’s prevention program manager for Men Stopping Violence, which works to end men’s violence toward women.
According to Mr. Nuriddin, teen dating violence does not just begin in the home from watching mom, dad, or primary caretakers, but it is also filtered in the community through schools, peer groups, fraternities, and then a micro-community of churches and media until it grows and grows.
Seventeen-year-old Dante Anderson never thought he would strike a girl, so when he did hit his girlfriend, he was as surprised as she was.
“I’m not sure what happened. I was angry and just hit her. I was immediately sorry and wanted to make things better. Things just got out of control and I lost it,” he told The Final Call.
According to Dr. Rozario Slack, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based consultant who works with teen boys on developing healthy relationships, some guys feel that when girls say yes to sex, they have surrendered their sexuality and will do just about anything. When she finally feels empowered to say no, he thinks she is lying, he said.
Dr. Slack said that girls become objectified because when sex enters the relationship, boys’ minds send them a message of entitlement and ownership. In addition, he said, the boy feels, “‘That’s mine,’ not ‘she’s mine’ … She becomes property and in his mind ‘I can do whatever I want to her.’”
According to Lena Cole Dennis, founder of Communications Communities and Connections and former outreach and education director of the Jenesse Center, men could help put an end to such thoughts and abuse by teaching young males how to resolve conflicts within instead of striking out. They could also teach them how to defend themselves without being destructive.
Ms. Cole said that her own friends are petrified of having a healthy relationship discussion with their 12-year-old daughter because they do not want to ruin her innocence, but a conversation around healthy relationships does not have to just focus on sex, she said. They could be taught how to treat each other, how not to hit or talk badly about one another, and how to be secure in themselves around their friends.
“Relationships aren’t always about sex! Society tells a little boy and girl that’s going to be their girlfriend, their boyfriend, and we tell them about condoms, and they might not even be thinking about sex. That’s teaching control,” Ms. Cole said.
(More information on teen dating and domestic violence warning signs and resources may be found at www.jenesse.org, www.breakthecycle.org, www.menstoppingviolence.org, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.)