It would never happen to your kid. Your daughter’s boyfriend wouldn’t call her stupid, crazy or a slut. Your son’s girlfriend would never go through his texts, emails and voicemails. No one would ever slap, punch or choke your daughter.
Yes, it happens—but to other people in other zip codes. Right?
“We opened the Bryn Mawr office for a reason,” says Janine Kelly, community education coordinator at the Women’s Center of Montgomery County. “Teen dating violence and domestic abuse are rampant on the Main Line. But no matter how many times we say that, no one ever imagines it will happen to their children.”
No amount of money, education or social status inoculates a teenager against an abusive relationship. In fact, experts say those things may even give the abuser more tools for control: With cell phones and social media, abusers can keep an electronic leash on their victims.
When does typical teenage drama become dangerous? Actually, it’s the lack of drama that is a warning sign. “Isolating the person from his or her friends is one of the first things an abuser does,” says Kelly. “When someone stops talking about the relationship altogether, information is being hidden. Something may be very wrong.”
And that’s a tough dose of reality for parents. “Teens don’t tell them everything about their relationships, even in good circumstances,” says Tommie Wilkins, director of training and education at Laurel House, a Norristown shelter and counseling center for abused women.
Love Is Respect, a joint project between the National Dating Abuse Helpline and Break the Cycle, found that one in three teens has been physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally abused by a partner. And one in 10 high school students has suffered physical injury.
Kelly and Wilkins conduct seminars at area colleges, high schools, middle schools, churches, synagogues, parent associations, community groups and anywhere else that will host them.
“Our primary message is that love is not control,” Kelly says. “I give examples of abusive behavior that people wouldn’t accept in their friends: name calling, extreme jealousy, threats, checking your phone, talking badly about your parents—let alone hitting or forcing you to have sex. Do you want friends who do those things? No. So why accept a boyfriend or girlfriend who does that? Saying, ‘I love you,’ doesn’t make any of that OK. That person doesn’t love you; that person wants to control you.”
Educators have another goal: reaching the friends of teenagers currently in abusive relationships. “They know what’s up long before parents do,” Wilkins says. “To teenagers, their friends are their life. They’ll do absolutely anything to help each other. I try to give them strategies to do just that.”
The first line of defense for any educator who comes across a potentially abusive relationship: Tell the parents or another trusted adult who can provide guidance. The second: Reestablish ties with the victim and form a support network. In ideal conditions, parents and friends should work together.
“Breaking through the victim’s isolation is critical,” says Minna Davis, director of counseling at Laurel House. “People say, ‘She won’t talk about it,’ or, ‘She won’t talk to me at all.’ Fine. You talk to her. Tell her that you care about her—that she matters, that you’re there if she needs you. Have everyone in her life do that, over and over. Form a web of support—a big, wide, strong one.”
“Show her that she’s not alone,” adds Wilkins. “Walk her down the halls at school. Walk her to practice. Walk her home. Walk her down the path to feeling safe.”
While friends may have witnessed another’s downward spiral, parents may be shocked at the news that their child is in an abusive relationship. Informed of the danger, they may act like, well, parents. Fueled by fear and guilt, they might easily try to extract the teenager from the situation by confronting the abuser and his parents, calling the police, contacting the school, and keeping the victim sheltered.
None of that is likely to work, experts say. A victim won’t end the relationship until she wants to.
“Understand that the abuser is waging a campaign to keep her in the relationship,” Davis says. “The abuser has convinced the teen that her parents don’t understand her—or him. And he isn’t going to be bad all the time; he’s going to be good a lot of the time. When he’s abusive, he says he’s sorry and will never do it again. She will believe him because she wants to. It’s the cycle: great behavior, buildup, explosion, apologies, reconciliation.”
When confronted about the abuse, the victim may sneak around to see her boyfriend. She may lie to everyone, including the police. She may end the relationship, then resume it. Witnessing these actions may be frustrating for friends and gut-wrenching for parents. “But never, ever give up on the person,” Davis says. “Tomorrow or the next day or the next, he or she may be ready to end that relationship because you said, ‘I love you.’ So keep saying it and saying it.”
And it’s crucial to get help. Parents, siblings, friends—everyone around the victim may need support in dealing with the situation, says Davis, who contacts people within 24 hours of them calling Laurel House.
When she’s ready to end the relationship, the victim should create an exit plan with the help of friends, family and a domestic-violence professional. “If the abuser gets wind of the victim wanting to end the relationship, he may escalate the situation to hold on to her,” Kelly says. “There are specific strategies we can share to deal with those circumstances.”
And there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the victim—and even the abuser. “There is help, and there is healing,” says Wilkins. “With the right professional guidance and support system, both can change their behaviors and make different choices. There is always, always hope.”
1. Do you get jealous when she makes a new friend?
2. Do you read her texts or go through her purse?
3. Do you discourage her from trying new things?
4. Do you drive by her house to see if she’s home?
5. Do you get upset when she’s with friends or family?
6. Do you call her names?
7. Do you criticize her clothing or the music she likes?
8. Do you accuse her of flirting or cheating without evidence?