WASHINGTON — If your teen was in an abusive relationship, you would know about it, right?
Unfortunately, a lot of signs of dating abuse are not as identifiable as the physical ones, says Aisha Burgess, the director of Dating Matters Baltimore, a program aimed at reducing dating violence among the city’s teens.
“The physical signs of dating violence are obvious, like bruises and things of that nature,” Burgess says, “but when we’re talking about dating violence, it’s not always going to be physical. It can be emotional as well.”
Burgess tells adults participating in the program’s parents classes that behavioral changes can sometimes signal an unhealthy relationship. Teens are naturally moody, but if your child starts to withdraw from their friends and old activities they used to enjoy, it’s time to check in.
If your child is in middle school, this may be around the time when they start to pull away from you in general.
“Middle schoolers are in this interesting stage of development where they’re seeking a semblance of independence, and oftentimes parents will back off at this point, particularly in terms of school activities,” says Burgess. “Supervision is still very important.”
Don’t be afraid to assert yourself a bit. Know who your child’s friends are, where they’re going when they leave the house. Be especially nosy when it comes to smartphones, she says.
“We talk to parents about monitoring their child’s use of technology because we know that dating abuse can happen electronically as well. Monitor their use of the Internet and their cellphones. Have access to their passwords.”
There will be pushback, but it’s important to set a precedent at the beginning.
“That’s a conversation that parents should have initially when these items are purchased. Set that expectation at the beginning. Let them know that for their safety, from time to time, you may check in. Just to see what type of activity they’re engaged in,” says Burgess.
While it may be an uncomfortable conversation, talking to your children about dating abuse and unhealthy relationships is very important.
“We encourage parents to initiate the conversation,” says Burgess. “During adolescence, our young people are not always going to share information with us or initiate that sharing.”
Conversations like these tell teens that their issues are important, which she says may be part of the reason teen dating abuse has been such a long-standing issue.
“I think that historically, there has been a tendency to not take this matter very seriously. I think it has been historically accepted. There were a lot of people in society who would often write it off as ‘that’s just children being children.’ It has been accepted as a social norm for so long that not much attention has been given to it until, across the country, young adolescents have started to lose their lives as a result of violent dating relationships.”
Sometimes, teens may think they’re in unhealthy relationships but they’re unsure of who to turn to. Encourage them to identify a trusted adult, Burgess says.
“That trusted adult may be a parent or it may be someone else. It may be a coach, a principal or a guidance counselor, someone that they can talk to about almost anything.”
All of this is intended to give your teen the support they need at a confusing time. Dating can be baffling at any age, no matter how much experience you may have. Burgess says that a lot of young people aren’t equipped with enough knowledge about healthy relationships to know when something just isn’t right.
“We know that domestic violence is an issue in the adult population. Oftentimes adults are ashamed to get help, they often blame themselves for the violence. So imagine a young person, who has even less experience with dating and romantic relationships. Imagine how difficult it may be for them to identify certain behaviors as abuse.”
Some parents may be wary of involving themselves too much in their children’s lives. Says Burgess: Better safe than sorry. Pay attention to who they spend time with, what they’re doing on their phones and on the Internet, and talk to them about what a healthy and unhealthy relationship looks like, beyond the physical indicators.
“Violent dating relationships often start with emotional and verbal abuse. If they’re not recognizing it as abuse early on, and making some changes to the people they’re associating themselves with, or at least reaching out to an adult or someone who can help them navigate that situation, then it just escalates. The behavior escalates and becomes a violent situation that sometimes becomes fatal.”