Op-Ed: Confront dating abuse through communication

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A few years ago, during an otherwise innocuous conversation, one of my oldest and dearest friends relayed the following story about her 17-year-old daughter:

“Sophie [not her real name] and her boyfriend were at a party last weekend, and he got mad about something she said, and he literally picked her up by her shirt and threw her against the wall.”

While the incident was shocking, it was Sophie’s reaction — or lack thereof — that horrified me. Being body-checked by a boyfriend should have shaken her to the core, but Sophie didn’t seem to consider it a big deal.

That’s when I experienced That Parenting Moment, the one that flings us from the world in which we grew up into the unrecognizable reality where our kids are learning to live — and to love. 

We want to believe that everyone who comes to know our children will love and respect them as much as we do. Unfortunately, about one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

You’re thinking “Not my kid” — but we’re talking about one in three girls. We’re talking about every race, religion and community. (Even “nice Jewish kids,” like Sophie and her boyfriend.) We’re talking about a punch in the face, or erosion of self-esteem, or silent digital stalking that robs a girl of her peace of mind.

The issue is bigger and more pervasive than any of us can fathom — even those of us who fathom it for a living. Do you honestly believe it will never touch your child?

Young love was tough enough before technology took over; today it really is a jungle out there. In a recent Liz Claiborne study, 30 percent of teens in relationships said they are text messaged 10, 20, 30 times an hour by their partners asking where they are, what they’re doing or who they’re with. Nearly a quarter of teens in a relationship communicated with their partner via cellphone or texting HOURLY between midnight and 5 a.m.

Consider the “sexting” epidemic and it looks even worse: One in five teen girls has electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. Sexually suggestive text, e-mail or instant messages are more prevalent at 37 percent.

And here’s where it gets really scary: Nearly one in five “sext” recipients admits sharing the images and messages with someone else — at least one person, but usually more.

Technology’s greatest trick is creating the illusion of control: Teens can choose (and unchoose) their "friends," decide who accesses which information and magically conceal what they don’t want their parents to know. But beneath the passwords and preferences, our kids are surrendering their privacy. We are all, by action or permission, forfeiting our power.

What can we do, besides watch privacy and common courtesy circle the drain?

Start with communication: In a 2009 survey of parents, three in four said they had talked with their teens about the meaning of a healthy relationship — but the majority of the teens (three-quarters of sons and two-thirds of daughters) said they had not discussed dating abuse with a parent in the past year.

Only 32 percent of teens in abusive relationships confided in their parents about their situations.  And it’s worth mentioning that teen dating abuse most often happens in one of the partners’ homes.

In a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," only 14 percent of seventh- through 12th-graders said their parents had rules about how many text messages they could send. And while about 25 percent of the report’s tweens and teens had telephone time restrictions, with texting the preferred means of communication, dating abuse really has become more hidden — a reclusive shadow over the lives of our kids.

We need to become advocates for mandatory healthy relationship training in our schools, religious institutions and sports teams. It’s at least as important as health or gym class, which are non-academic and required.

And we should educate ourselves. Learn to spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship: slipping grades; changes in mood, activities or dress; withdrawal from friends; making light of a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s violent behavior.

These are all possible (but not definite) indicators of an unhealthy relationship. You know your child; if you’re paying attention, you’ll know if something is wrong.

Talk openly about abuse; remove the taboo. Encourage your teenager to share thoughts and experiences, and respect his or her point of view. If you suspect your teen is being abused, be sure she or he feels safe and supported, not accused or blamed.

February — Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month — is a perfect opportunity to broach the subject. And keep the dialogue going — over days, weeks, months, years. An open line of communication is essential. Plenty of free and qualified advice is available to get you started. Try thesafespace.org, loveisrespect.org and jwi.org/parents.

And don’t let the lines of communication end at your front door. Talk with other parents in your children’s social circles; create a network of support that flows from parent to parent, parent to teen, and hopefully among the teens themselves. 

(Lori Weinstein is executive director of Jewish Women International, creators of abuse prevention programs.)

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