February 3, 2017

Teen dating: The critical practice run

by Jim Yang-Hellewell, LCSW
56th Medical Operations Squadron

This is the time of year when we focus on Teen Dating Violence Awareness.

As the Centers for Disease Control has reported, 23 percent of females and 14 percent of males who have ever experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.” Additionally, a Youth Risk Behavior Survey found approximately 10 percent of high school students reported physical victimization and 10 percent reported sexual victimization from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed.

As real and disturbing as these statistics are for teens, there exists a far more pervasive and sometimes accepted form of abuse, emotional abuse. Emotional abuse in teen relationships could be considered the rehearsal phase for future corrosive and abusive adult relationships. Unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime. Teens often think some behaviors, like teasing and name-calling, are normal in a relationship. However, these behaviors can become (emotionally) abusive.

As teens develop emotionally, they are heavily influenced by experiences in their relationships. Healthy relationship behaviors can have a positive effect on a teen’s emotional development. Unhealthy, abusive, or violent relationships can have severe consequences, and short- and long-term negative effects on a developing teen, according to the CDC.

As teens, especially in our current dating climate, are developing more exclusive relationships, a kind of “dating serial monogamy,” the risks of falling into a prolonged cycle of abuse becomes more likely.

Teens often find themselves in relationships that are not so much committed as they are controlling, characterized by jealousy, exclusive demands for time, monitoring of social contacts, and even stalking. Requirements emerge on how to dress, how hair should be done, how to behave, how to spend time, and what interests are acceptable.

For many teens, these controls are accepted and tolerated because it is, as they assert, a committed relationship. Ridicule, put-downs, and criticisms become the prevailing pattern of communication, a pattern that strikes at the heart of growing teen’s sense of self. There may be apologies and repentance by the partner, and a honeymoon, but the abuse will likely start again. Teens, like many adults, may be reluctant to leave these relationships because, they believe, it is better than being alone.

More importantly, teens may not be aware that relationships can be better, because, after all, they are teens and these relationships are the first practice runs. They may not know that good relationships should lead to growth and a sense of personal freedom, not confinement and diminishment. They may not know that good relationships are about knowing and supporting dreams and pursuits, that successful relationships are overloaded with affirmations and a bare minimum of criticisms. All of this knowledge is new to the teen. Unfortunately, if the teen does not acquire that knowledge and experience, their adult relationship will be a return to what they already know.

Teen years are critical and the role of sensitive, listening adults is critical. Talk to your teen about their experience with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Is it making them better, or is it changing them in ways that are disturbing. Remember, teens are not adults, but they need adults. They are still learning and they are vulnerable. Their young hearts are in formation.

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