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Teen dating abuse a growing concern

FARGO – Young love can hurt, in more than just unrequited crushes and broken hearts.

Teen dating abuse is a problem of growing concern. New research on the topic showing more than a third of teens say they’ve been physically, emotionally or sexually abused was recently presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association.

“Dating violence often can mimic domestic violence in some ways with a younger population,” says Daria Odegaard, education coordinator for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo. “We see a lot of the power and control issues we see in domestic situations.”

This can include excessive jealousy, demanding to know where the boyfriend or girlfriend is at all times or forbidding friendships with people of the opposite sex.

“Technology is playing a big role in dating violence now. That’s one of the biggest trends we’re seeing,” Odegaard says.

The perpetrator may call or text excessively, post rumors on Facebook or Twitter, or coerce the victim with sexting.

The unpublished nationwide survey found that similar numbers of boys and girls say they’ve been abusers, and some studies show girls may be more likely to physically abuse a dating partner, according to a USA Today article.

Odegaard says she’s eager to read the full study results, and the context of the questions.

She says when girls are abusive, it’s typically verbal or emotional. When girls lash out physically, it’s often resistant violence, done in self-defense, or situational, rather than a pattern of behavior meant to control the dating partner.

For example, a girl may slap her boyfriend after he calls her horrible names and threatens her. Depending on a survey’s line of questioning, she may appear to be the abuser.

While violence is never OK, Odegaard says, there’s a difference between the two.

In 2011, 6.7 percent of North Dakota high school students said they had been hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend at some point during the previous 12 months, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey results. The response numbers between male and female students were nearly equal.

Another survey result showed 6.4 percent of students say they had ever been forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to, with a larger number of female students (10.2 percent) than male (3 percent).

Both numbers have steadily decreased since 2001, when 11.7 percent of students said they had been physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend and 8.6 percent had been forced to have sexual intercourse.

So why does teen dating violence happen?

“We live in a society where there are a lot of social norms that promote violence in relationships,” Odegaard says, citing our culture’s limited definitions of masculinity and power-structured society. “Even young people are susceptible to these social norms. It starts at an early age.

“When you look at young people and the culture they live in, the movies they watch and the music they listen to, and being as young as they are, they’re so desensitized to it,” Odegaard adds. “They haven’t been given the opportunity to have thoughtful discussion about what they’re being inundated with on a daily basis.”

Pop culture often portrays love as possessive, all-consuming and co-dependent. “So many young people equate control and jealousy with love,” Odegaard says.

To professionals like Odegaard, excessive jealousy is a flashing red warning sign, a precursor to violence.

She says there are definitely crossroads between bullying and dating violence. Both issues are about power, and there are shared risk factors for becoming a bully or an abuser.

Teen dating abuse falls on a continuum, says Ron Schneider, a counselor at Woodrow Wilson High School in Fargo.

Occasionally a student will come in to talk about sexual assault, but that’s not as frequent as the student feeling she’s being possessed.

Schneider has heard of students whose boyfriend won’t let them get a job, or who has installed a tracking app on her phone.

“Usually when they come in, it’s a signal to us they’re asking for help, they want us to get in and help them,” he says.

Usually, he recommends they visit with a counselor from the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.

All of the metro-area high schools have a center counselor assigned to the building. Health class curriculum covers healthy relationships.

Mercedes Lee, a 22-year-old North Dakota State University student, works as a violence prevention educator on campus, talking to peers, including incoming freshmen, about sexual assault awareness and domestic and dating violence.

Lee says she noticed dating abuse in high school, like one partner wanting to spend all his or her time with the other, but says she probably didn’t recognize it as well as she could now that she’s gone through training.

She feels like the high school dating scene has also changed, even since she graduated.

“I feel like youths nowadays are getting older faster, even more so than when I was their age,” Lee says. “There’s this pressure where you have to be in a relationship.”

If something doesn’t feel right, instead of breaking off the relationship, the students may feel invested in fixing it but don’t know how, she says.

Lee recommends teens who see a friend in an abusive relationship remain supportive rather than ostracize their friend.

Schneider encourages parents to look for teachable moments when watching TV.

“Say to your son or daughter, ‘What do you think about that? That doesn’t look healthy to me,’ ” he says.

“I think there’s a lot more that can be done as a town to say to the kids, ‘This is something that a healthy relationship looks like and whenever you see anything that looks other than that, run far, run fast,’ ” Schneider says.

Sherri Richards | Forum News Service

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