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Lasting Effects of Teen Dating Violence

October 20, 2014, 12:00 PM
Lasting Effects of Teen Dating Violence
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Many teens — and even middle schoolers — are discovering the dark side of dating.

Teens may think teasing and name-calling are “normal,” but what may start out as flattering attention can set the stage for a form of violence. And physical or emotional bruises can lead downward to the open arms of depression and risky behavior.

Teen dating violence, including physical, emotional, sexual and the newest — digital abuse — can leave lasting damage. Unhealthy relationships can start early, and while bruises may fade, emotional scars can remain.

What is dating violence? It is a form of violence between two people who are in a close, maybe romantic, relationship. But there is nothing romantic about controlling, abusive and aggressive behavior.

Dating violence is a public health problem with serious short-term and long-term effects, and it can happen to any teen, anywhere.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 percent of high school youth are victims of physical dating violence. Other studies suggest that more than 20 percent are victims of emotional dating violence. Previous studies indicate that adolescent dating violence begins in middle school, and that this form of violence disproportionately affects ethnic-minority students.

New research from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health shows that It’s Your Game… Keep it Real (IYG) can significantly reduce dating violence behaviors among minority youth. IYG is a groundbreaking health education program designed at the UTHealth School of Public Health approximately 10 years ago to delay sexual behavior and promote healthy dating relationships.

The study, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined 766 students in 10 middle schools in a large, urban school district in southeast Texas. Forty-four percent of the students were African American and 42 percent were Hispanic.

IYG had previously been shown to be effective in delaying sexual initiation and reducing sexual risk behavior. “Geared toward middle school students, the program is widely used for teen pregnancy prevention,” says Melissa Peskin, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health. “Dating violence was not a primary goal of the program, but we learned the program had a positive impact. It is another bonus that the program reduces dating violence as well.”

In fact, IYG is one of a few nationwide programs that have a proven impact on dating violence.

“This research showed us we need to start with the basics,” explains Peskin. “We need to have conversations in our homes and schools about healthy relationships, even what makes a good friendship.”

To prevent any type of dating violence, it is important to learn skills on how to form positive relationships. “Our program doesn’t just raise awareness,” adds Peskin, “but offers training on what a healthy relationship looks like and how to form one.”

Training includes classroom and computer-based activities focusing on evaluating relationships, strategies for reducing peer pressure, obtaining social support, setting personal limits and respecting others’ limits.

Dating violence does not just damage relationships, but it can have a negative impact on health. Teens who are victims are most likely to have depression, anxiety and unhealthy behaviors such as tobacco or drug abuse or suicidal tendencies.

Crossing the line

Abuse by a boy, or a girl, can take many forms. What starts out seemingly innocent to an 11-year-old, such as having their phone password stolen or their emails read without permission, can lead to aggressive, abusive behavior.

“Dating violence is abusive behavior used to exert control over another,” says Stacy Crandall, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor of nursing systems at UTHealth School of Nursing. “It is important to know when behavior crosses the line from a healthy to an unhealthy relationship.”

The following are examples of different types of abusive behavior:

Verbal and emotional abuse:

  • Name-calling
  • Jealousy
  • Belittling you
  • Telling you what to do

Physical abuse:

  • Shoving
  • Punching
  • Slapping
  • Pinching
  • Hitting or kicking
  • Hair pulling

Sexual abuse:

  • Unwanted touching and kissing
  • Forcing you to have sex
  • Not letting you use birth control

Dating violence does not even have to be in person. Digital dating abuse involves technologies such as texting and social networking to intimidate a partner.

Digital abuse:

  • Cyber bullying/stalking/harassing
  • Spreading vicious rumors
  • Intimidation
  • “Sexting”

“Ten years ago, digital dating violence was not as pervasive or as possible as it is today,” adds Crandall. “With the popularity of social media, it is now a huge part of a teen’s life. The digital world opens a new way for teens to communicate. Sometimes this communication is not healthy. One negative post can damage an individual’s self- esteem.”

Telltale signs

Being a victim of dating violence is not the teen’s fault. No one has the right to hurt someone, no matter what they say, wear or do.

Many teens are not comfortable telling friends and family they are being abused or disrespected because they are afraid, embarrassed or both. It is possible that the teen does not have a good example of a healthy relationship at home and believes this type of behavior is acceptable.

What to look for if you suspect someone is being abused:

  • Outside physical bruises from an unexplained origin
  • Losing interest in regular hobbies or activities
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Other risky behaviors

It is also important to know the warning signs of what can lead to a pattern of abusive behavior:

Explosive temper and mood swings: While many people can become angry, an unpredictable and explosive temper can be dangerous. When someone’s mood swings from easy laughter to screaming at someone, watch out.

Intimidation: Making someone fearful can be a damaging weapon. A certain look, a menacing gesture, smashing things or abusing a pet can be used to show who’s the “boss” in the relationship.

Aggressive, physical behavior: Being pushed or scratched is often excused because it “only happened once.” Studies show that if a partner intentionally injures someone he or she “cares” about, this single incident could lead to a pattern of physical abuse that lasts a lifetime.

Mutual respect, healthy relationship

A healthy relationship involves two people who have respect for each other and feel equal. Neither partner is afraid of the other.

“A good relationship is supportive and uplifting and both partners feel loved, cared for and cared about,” adds Crandall. “Disagreements are a natural part of a healthy relationship, while disrespect is not. Love is respect. Hitting a person is not a solution to a disagreement.”

In a healthy relationship, all communication is respectful, whether it is in person, online or by phone.

Parents = protectors

Parents need to take an active role in their child’s life. “Find out what is going on with your child,” urges Crandall. “Keep the lines of communication open and let them know you are there for them. Ask questions but be prepared for the answers. Patience is very important, especially when your child does not want to talk.”

“Research shows that when parents communicate with their children, the children are less likely to engage in risky behaviors,” adds Peskin.

Seeking outside help is always a good option, and this includes clergy, professional counselors, health care providers or a school nurse. A parent should be supportive if a teen feels more comfortable speaking to non-family member about these issues. What is important is that help is available.

“Love does not hurt,” emphasizes Crandall, “and if it does, it probably is not love. A good relationship makes you smile more than frown.”

If you know a teen who may be in an abusive relationship, offer assurance and let them know there are people who can provide guidance and support. Teens and parents can learn more about healthy relationships from www.loveisrespect.org and www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/datingmatters.

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