While most people associate February with Valentine’s Day and all things love-related, the second month of the year is also National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, established in 2010 by Congress.
According to a press release from the Katie Brown Educational Program, an in-class program designed to teach the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, 1.5 million American high school students are involved in abusive dating relationships.
Here are some other statistics:
While these statistics may be surprising to most adults, they were not so shocking to a group of three high school juniors at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School.
Karli Baker, Emily Furtado and Naomi Franzen, three juniors in Vets’ Leadership Academy, say that while physical violence is not something seen every day, other forms of violence that lead to unhealthy relationships are.
“Most of us expect it, but not so severe,” said Baker when asked about her reaction to the statistics.
The three friends agree while physical acts such as hitting are not seen on a regular basis, seeing friends in controlling relationships is.
“You find that in everything,” said Franzen. “You see guys don’t let girlfriends hang out with other guys or girls don’t let boyfriends hang out with other girls.”
Claire Spaulding McVicker, executive director of the Katie Brown Educational Program (named for 20-year-old Katie Brown of Barrington who was killed by her boyfriend in 2001), pointed out that many teens may identify an abusive dating relationship by physical or sexually violent acts only, but verbal, emotional and financial violence also define an unhealthy relationship.
“It is really important for teens to realize abusive and unhealthy relationships are not only physical,” said McVicker, pointing out manipulation, name-calling, tearing down a partner’s self-esteem and isolating a partner from their support system of friends and family can be big warning signs of a dangerous relationship.
The Vets teens explained that they don’t always think of a “controlling” boyfriend/girlfriend as an unhealthy relationship because it is so common and just accepted as the norm; most assume the significant other is just insecure.
Other examples of common behaviors that experts might consider warning signs of an unhealthy relationship that the girls said were common include canceling plans because the boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t want them to go, not wearing certain styles because the significant other would not like it, neglecting friends and having the other person dictate decisions.
As an example, Furtado recalled a recent night with a friend when a significant other came over, dragged her to the corner of the room and interrogated her about plans.
“You try to talk to the both of them,” said Franzen when asked what she does if a friend ends up in this situation.
When asked why they thought people stayed in these controlling relationships, Furtado said it could be they have neglected their friends and are scared to go back.
“I feel like some people stay in those relationships because they don’t have other friends; they’ve isolated themselves,” she said.
The students added that increased technology such as cell phones and social media has made it easier for the controlling relationship to last through the whole day; a significant other could track their partner’s whereabouts on social media or text constantly.
Franzen believes people in these situations may be scared to admit it or have friends realize it.
“The people don’t want other people to be in their business,” she said, adding that on the other side they might be protecting the other person.
The effects of being in an unhealthy or abusive relationship at a young age can have long-lasting effects as well. According to TeenDVmonth.org, victims of violent relationships in adolescences are at a higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence. Also, being physically or sexually abused makes teen girls six times more likely to become pregnant, twice as likely to get an STD and 50 percent of young victims of dating violence and rape attempt suicide.
The issue is that there is a lack of awareness that these problems exist; TeenDVmonth.org reports that 81 percent of parents said teen dating violence was not an issue or did not know if it was an issue; 82 percent of parents said they could recognize the signs of an abusive relationship but 58 percent failed to identify warning signs when asked.
But the fault does not only fall on the parents; only 33 percent of teens in an abusive relationship reported telling someone.
“Unfortunately, this has always been an epidemic,” said McVicker. “It’s kind of this thing people tend to hide from others.”
She added that slowly the conversation is changing, and it is becoming more acceptable and easier to speak up about domestic and dating violence.
But it is still not enough. According to the Vets students, dating violence is not a topic brought up in school; sometimes it will be a topic of discussion in health classes but that varies by teacher. They all, however, feel it is important for teens to learn.
“Adults know how to handle it better. Kids don’t have the experience to know it’s wrong. I guess we’re sort of naïve that way,” said Baker.
So if young people are still not going to adults about this, what is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month promoting? According to McVicker, one of the most important things teens can do to try and eliminate dating violence is talk to each other.
“It’s really important for young people to keep talking about dating relationships,” she said. “To continue to be supportive of friends, let them know it’s not OK and they deserve better.”
According to McVicker, young people are not only more likely to go to a friend first with a problem, but friends are also the most likely to notice a change in behavior or signs of abuse first; that is why making sure young people understand the traits of a healthy relationship and know the signs of an unhealthy one is so important.
“Sadly, I think what we see on TV perpetuates this idea that violence is acceptable; it’s hard for young people to understand it’s not,” said McVicker. “This is an issue that affects everybody in every single community in every age group, regardless of ethnic or economic groups.”
The Katie Brown Educational Program is attempting to help young people, providing weeklong educational programs in classrooms across Rhode Island and Massachusetts for students in grades 5 through 12. The subject material is age appropriate, with younger students speaking about violence and bullying relationships, while the high school program addresses the dating situations.
Also to address this problem and acknowledge Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence launched a new youth section of their website dedicated to providing resources and tools for young people who may be facing (or have friends facing) a dating violence situation. To celebrate the launch and the month, RICADV launched the #KNOWWhatLoveIs Instagram contest; young people can submit their photos of what they believe love is through the social networking app Instagram and cash prizes will be awarded at the end of the month. For more information, check out their new page on www.ricadv.org, under the “What We Do” menu click Teen Dating Violence and Prevention.