By Meredith Gold, director of domestic abuse services for YWCA Greenwich
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and now is the time to talk to teens about their relationships.
We all know those first loves can feel amazing, but for many teens, one in three, those first encounters turn into abusive and often violent relationships.
Teaching the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships at an early age is critical to helping our youth navigate the complexities of friendships, dating and all other kinds of relationships by building skills and tools such as empathy, conflict negotiation and clear communication. Abuse is not limited to physical violence and often includes exerting emotional, verbal and psychological control over the dating partner. For example:
Digital Abuse: A female high school student, who normally excels academically, falls behind in school and one of her teachers notices her dozing off in class. The student reveals her boyfriend texts all night and insists she text him back right away, or else he accuses her of cheating on him.
Isolation and Manipulation: A male high school senior is getting tired of constantly trying to please his girlfriend by spending all his time with her. His friends are annoyed because he’s never around and always with her. When he explains how he feels and asks her for some space, she tells him she doesn’t think she can go on living without him, like “for real.”
Verbal Abuse and Threats: A student in a same sex relationship is constantly criticized by their partner and told that no one else would love them like they do. The student is worried about breaking up, no one knows they are gay and the abuser has threatened to “out them” to friends and family.
Early exposure to abusive or violent relationships increases the likelihood of those types of relationships being repeated as adults. Recognize the signs of abuse:
If you have questions about teen dating violence and prevention, reach out to YWCA Greenwich through our 24/7 hotline at 203-622-0003. YWCA Greenwich is the only state designated and accredited provider of domestic abuse services in Greenwich, and we’re also available to counsel parents and others who want to help a loved one who might be in an abusive relationship.
On Tuesday, Feb. 27, 6:30-8:30 p.m., YWCA Greenwich will host the Looking In Theatre. The company, made up of teens, will perform a series of short dramatic scenes that explore healthy and unhealthy relationships, followed by a discussion in which the actors stay in character while answering questions from the audience. The goal is to present realistic situations using language young people understand. The event is free and open to high school and college students, parents and service providers who focus on issues teens face. Reserve a seat at www.ywcagreenwich.org/lookingintheatre
Changes in physical appearance or eating habits;
Depression and/or mood/overall personality changes;
Isolation from family/loss of friendships;
Inability to concentrate;
Excusing a partner’s behavior;
The relationship progresses extremely quickly;
Excessively texting/calling their partner;
Constant check-ins/texts and photos to prove where they are.
Note that many of these behaviors are a part of normal teenage development and not an automatic indicator of abuse. It’s important to look for patterns and/or several of the above occurring at the same time.
Parents and caring adults shouldn’t wait to start a conversation about healthy relationships until they suspect abuse. It’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open and not give up if your teen shuts down. It’s great to model healthy relationships as much as possible and use “teachable moments” to point out positive relationship behaviors and question unhealthy ones.
If you suspect a young person you care about is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it, gently. It’s better to point out concerns about specific behaviors (I noticed you tend to ask permission from your girlfriend before making plans with your friends) rather than criticizing their partner (Your boyfriend is smothering you, is he really that insecure?)
If the teen does open up to you: JUST LISTEN. Don’t minimize their experience or rush to offer advice or solutions. Avoid the inclination to “prohibit” them from seeing their partner, as this will likely result in the teen defending their partner and seeing you as the enemy, and will likely not work anyway. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can help them feel supported by letting them know you will figure it out together.
Meredith Gold is director of domestic abuse services for YWCA Greenwich.