It’s a lesson best learned young. Michaela is part of a group from Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond who participated in a recent program run by First Things First of Greater Richmond, designed to educate and empower people of all ages about healthy dating, relationships, and marriage.
The most important lesson? “You’ve got to show respect and you should expect respect,” she said.
Bob Ruthazer, founder and program director of First Things First, hopes that more children like Michaela get that message. “It is important to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships early on,” he said. “We want to teach people to use their head and protect their heart.”
“The idea is to slow the relationship down so that it’s not based on infatuation but has time to develop real love,” he said. “Or to recognize it is unhealthy before deep wounding takes place.”
Unfortunately, not every teen is equipped to expect or demand that from a relationship.
Too many relationships – among young and old – go awry. Add to that today’s online complexities and what some refer to as a hook-up culture, and it gets even more confusing, both for teens and for their parents.
And bad relationships can happen to anybody. Do you remember the high-profile incident several years ago at the University of Virginia, which resulted in Yeardley Love’s death and George Huguely’s conviction for murder? The case, involving two athletes, showed a sometimes-skeptical public that abuse transcends socioeconomic or educational lines.
In fact, the statistics of teen dating abuse are shocking.
In Virginia, 12.1 percent of high school students have reported being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend, said Robert Franklin, community outreach coordinator for sexual and domestic violence at the Virginia Department of Health. And the abuse doesn’t end when the relationship does; teen dating violence can lead to adverse health outcomes, an increase in unhealthy behaviors, and intimate partner violence as an adult. Dating abuse has been linked to suicidal thoughts, weight gain, sexually transmitted diseases, and other physical and mental health problems, said Franklin.
At the college level, data indicates abuse is even more frequent.
“The data definitely shows that a lot of relationships do contain components of violence or control at a higher rate than any of us want our kids to experience,” said Angela Verdery, public information manager at Safe Harbor, a Henrico-based organization that offers emergency shelter, court advocacy, and counseling services. And, she noted, these statistics merely reflect reported incidents, and experts know that only a small percentage of actual incidents are.
So how can teens – and their parents – recognize an unhealthy relationship before it gets out of hand?
The Red Flag Campaign, a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance says abusers of any age typically:
• Blame you for how they treat you, or for anything bad that happens.
• Abuse siblings, other family members, children, or pets.
• Put down people, including your family and friends, or call them names.
• Are always angry at someone or something.
• Try to isolate you and control whom you see or where you go.
• Take your money or take advantage of you in other ways.
• Accuse you of flirting or accuse you of cheating on them.
• Tell you how to dress or act.
• Compare you to former partners.
Franklin says teens should ask themselves if they still have their independence after getting involved with someone.
“Just because you start dating doesn’t mean your life ends,” he said. “Keep doing what you like to do. You shouldn’t have to give up your hobbies. And it has to be fun.. If it’s not fun, why are you doing it?”
In all relationships, communication, respect, and boundary-setting is essential, said Verdery. But that doesn’t necessarily mean one strike and you’re out. “There are times when someone does something – and they don’t mean something necessarily – that upsets you. But in a healthy relationship, you can state, ‘I don’t like it when you do that.'”
Because people grow up in different families with unique experiences, there are different concepts of what is acceptable and what isn’t. “Some people are far louder in general, and that’s just their family or their culture, and not meant to be disrespectful,” says Verdery.
And so, she said, a healthy relationship involves healthy communication and healthy negotiation.
Ideally, we would prevent unhealthy relationships before they start. And our society is getting better at that, said Franklin.
“Prevention is about all of us changing our ideas about what is a healthy relationship and what is not. It’s building community awareness to make a stand And getting rid of the idea that if it’s not physical then it’s not abuse.”
And like most things, it’s important to start young.
“Start talking to your kids before they start dating,” said Franklin, “and have conversations and look at websites for warning signs and ways to deal with potentially bad relationships.”
Sara Elizabeth Duke, a Richmond native studying at Vanderbilt University to become a women’s health nurse practitioner, became involved in educating young adults about relationships as an undergraduate at UVA. “The patterns we learn and get into start young, almost with elementary and middle school. The gender roles and learning how to act in relationships start at that age and we build on that.
“We need to go beyond teaching [youth] about the parts [of the body] and how they work. We need to work on their emotional health needs too,” she said. “By teaching what is appropriate, they will be able to more easily recognize what is not. Then they can start to look out for each other and hold each other to higher standards. If nobody knows the rules, it is much harder to play the game and certainly less civil,” Duke said.
To help students know these rules, the Commonwealth of Virginia recently added requirements revising the Family Life Education Guidelines and Standards of Learning. The revisions require teaching the characteristics of dating violence and abusive relationships in middle and high school.
Physicians echo the messages of early learning. The Centers for Disease Control states, “The ultimate goal is to stop dating violence before it starts. Strategies that promote healthy relationships are vital. During the preteen and teen years, young people are learning skills they need to Form positive relationships with others. This is an ideal time to promote healthy relationships and prevent patterns of dating violence that can last into adulthood.”
And some experts see a positive trend already. “I think kids are looking out for each other more now,” said Judy Lee, public health nurse who works at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County.
What if you do recognize that your child or a friend is in an unhealthy relationship?
“A lot of times, people are scared and they deliver an ultimatum like ‘you have to leave this relationship or I’m not going to be your friend anymore.’ That can be really tough for someone to hear – and it can be counterproductive,” said Verdery with Safe Harbor.
Duke says, although it may not always be a teen’s strong suit, communication is crucial. “Keeping an open line to trusted adults is always helpful—but often not practical in a teen world.” That’s where online resources and hotlines (some of which allow texting rather than actual speaking, a boon for today’s teens) can help provide answers and resources.
And if you’re the one in the relationship, ending it before it escalates is important.
“Listen to your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, then it may not be right,” advises Lee, who works with high schoolers daily.
“Ending my long-term relationship was difficult,” said Jack, a Hermitage High School graduate who had a hard time breaking off a relationship he realized was heading to a bad place. “I think you need the mindset that both parties deserve equal rights and responsibilities, and if that’s not happening, then the relationship should end.”
Are you in an abusive relationship? Clues for teens…
• You feel afraid to break up with them.
• You feel tied down, or like you have to check in.
• You feel afraid to make decisions or bring up certain subjects so that the other person won’t get mad.
• You tell yourself that if you just try harder and love your partner enough that everything will be just fine.
You find yourself crying a lot, feeling depressed, or unhappy.
You find yourself worrying and obsessing about how to please your partner and keep him or her happy.
You find the physical or emotional abuse getting worse over time.
Source: The Red Flag Campaign, from the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance