Posted on February 08, 2013 at 2:14 pm
For many teenagers, the experience of their boyfriend or girlfriend hitting them, swearing at them or monitoring their every move has no name.
It might even feel natural.
If no one in a teen's support network -- including friends, peers, teachers and parents -- is able to recognize signs of dating violence or support a teen who tries to reach out for help, violence can escalate, threatening a teen's health, academic performance, and emotional well-being.
Women Against Abuse's educators have been working directly with teens in Philadelphia schools to help prevent dating violence. In many cases, school staff members were the first to initiate contact with WAA, often in the aftermath of critical dating violence incidents, including on-campus assaults and rapes, for specialized support in addressing the issue.
Today, WAA runs semester-long programs at four middle and high schools -- two of which are ranked among the ten most violent schools in the city -- to teach students about dating violence and encourage them to model healthy relationships for their peers.
Many teens don't realize what subtle behaviors might constitute abuse, such as continued pressure by a partner to engage in sexual activity against one's will. Teens might think it's normal for their partners to send them 20-30 text messages an hour asking where they are, what they are doing, and who they are with.
Teens might reveal that when no one is looking their partner regularly curses at them, demeans them, slaps them, or makes them feel afraid of saying 'No.'
Often teens recognize that they don't feel good or comfortable with these behaviors, but they need confirmation that what they've been experiencing is wrong.
"We see a lot of light bulb moments, like, 'Oh, I've been abused before,'" said WAA Educator Jessica Lewis. They might have reached that conclusion earlier but they didn't get the right feedback from adults or peers.
Teachers, counselors and administrators in the school might not take teen dating violence seriously. They might think that teens are play fighting or think that teens are being dramatic.
"I can't count the number of times I've seen someone respond with victim-blaming," said WAA Educator Monique Perry.
Teens feel more comfortable reaching out to friends, who likewise have little experience with dating. Teen social networks are often poorly equipped to respond to dating violence because adults have not had conversations with youth about healthy relationships.
"Awareness needs to be raised," said Perry, so that adults and teens are able to recognize and respond to teen dating violence when it occurs.
One of the most important thing adults can do is listen without making assumptions and believe what teens are saying. When adults leap to conclusions -- like thinking that the situation is under control or that there is no real threat -- they might shut teens down from reaching out for help in the future. Listening can be empowering and reaffirming, which is a critical first step.
Recent national surveys documenting the sheer prevalence of teen dating violence have propelled action by school administrators and teachers. They are reaching out to agencies like Women Against Abuse to provide training to teachers and students in recognition of the need for increased awareness.
"People are taking notice," said Perry. "Now they're recognizing it is a big issue."
Women Against Abuse educators are mandated reporters of child abuse. If they know that a child is being hurt by a partner, going to hurt a partner, or going to hurt themselves, they are required by state law to report the abuse.