Recent surveys have found that an alarming number of teenagers experience --and accept-- abusive behavior in dating relationships. Many experts say in order to change that, teenagers must learn how to expect respect in their relationships and understand that abuse is not an expression of love.
Some girls experience the fear and tangled emotions of dating violence at a young age.
Two dating abuse victims appeared on NBC TV news to talk about the unhealthy relationships they had with their boyfriends. "He was extremely verbally abusive, making me feel bad about myself, name calling, telling me I'm crazy. He was very controlling. I couldn't leave the house. I couldn't go anywhere. I basically wasn't allowed to have a life," one of them said.
The other girl's experience was similar. "He controlled what I wore, who I spoke to. I couldn't speak to my family members. I didn't really have any friends. He got me very isolated from other people," she said.
Not only were they emotionally abused, they say, they were physically hurt as well.
Girls are not the only ones with such stories. A recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, found that boys are victimized as often as girls.
Dr. IIeana Arias, director of the CDC's Injury Center, says one out of 11 high school students reported being hit, slapped or punched by a boyfriend or a girlfriend. "We were surprised to find significant negative health issues that are also associated with dating violence," she says. "For example, adolescents who reported being physically assaulted by a dating partner also reported binge drinking, reported engaging in suicide attempts, physical fighting with peers, and unfortunately, also being currently involved in sexual activities. So we found that, unfortunately, dating violence is a greater problem than everybody may have thought before."
According to another study commissioned by fashion designer Liz Claiborne, more than half of the surveyed teenagers say they've compromised their own beliefs to please their partners. And the most shocking result: many teens think this behavior is normal.
Bea Hanson sees a lot of that, as the chief program officer for Safe Horizon, a group that provides support for victims of abuse. "Teens don't know what a healthy relationship is," she says. She explains that teenagers just want to fit in, and have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and they often don't know how to identify abusive relationships.
"Some teens have looked at what they have at home and they are not seeing healthy relationships at home," she says. "They look at the media. They are bombarded with all of those music videos and abuse is happening in all those videos. So if they are not seeing healthy relationships at home, they are not seeing healthy relationships with their peers, they are not seeing healthy relationships on television, it's a problem."
Safe Horizon and other support groups have developed programs to help teenagers recognize the early signs of abuse, and end violent relationships. The CDC is promoting the Choose Respect campaign. "We have a web site, http://www.chooserespect.org," Dr. Arias says. "The information that we have on that web site is for teens themselves so they can learn about healthy relationships."
Dr. Ileana Arias says the Choose Respect website has online games, podcasts, videos, posters and public service announcements. The materials, she says, cover a wide variety of strategies, such as safety plans, communication skills, assertiveness, conflict resolution and emotion management that will help dating teens handle tough situations. Other information is available for adults who care for teenagers.
"We have materials and information for teachers," she says. "We also have materials for community based organizations who are in a position to either implement programs or engage in programs and try to prevent violence in communities. We have information and materials for parents."
Parental involvement, Dr. Arias says, is extremely important in combating date violence. "It's very critical, not only as role models but then actively engaging in educating their children," she says. "So, we are encouraging parents to make sure that they check in with their children on a regular basis, not just about negative things, but positive things so kids feel comfortable, and have expectations that they will share what happens to them with their parents and other adults. So if anything does develop, they can get the help that they need."
Dr. Arias says the Choose Respect campaign targets kids aged 11 to 14, so they can learn about respectful relationships before they start dating.