My first serious relationship in high school ended after a year-and-a-half when my boyfriend verbally abused me and then kicked me a few weeks later. The verbal abuse should have been my “aha” moment, but I was too bonded to the guy (we were “in love” and having sex) to see it for what it was. When I discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the classroom, I use my own story as a jumping off point to discuss how to avoid (or get out of) unhealthy or abusive relationships, and how to build healthy dating habits instead. Sexual harassment and dating violence aren’t new, but what IS new is how much the #MeToo movement has brought these issues into the light. The things we are talking about in society now are things I’ve been talking to teens about for almost 20 years, so I’m happy to see this issue getting the attention it deserves.
What do we know about teen dating violence? Well, it’s prevalent. From Ascend (which promotes sexual risk avoidance education), we find out that:
• 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 7.4% of high school students report having been forced to have sex
• Nearly 12% of high school females reported physical violence from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed. For high school males, more than 7% reported physical violence and about 5% reported sexual violence from a dating partner.
The risk of having unhealthy relationships increases for teens who:
• Believe that dating violence is acceptable
• Are depressed, anxious, or have other symptoms of trauma
• Use drugs or illegal substances
• Engage in early sexual activity and have multiple sexual partners
• Have a friend involved in teen dating violence
• Witness or experience violence in the home
If your child is dating, or just beginning to think about and talk about dating, the best preparation you can give your teen is lots of conversation, based around questions such as these:
What does a healthy relationship look like? Unhealthy? How do you want to be treated in a relationship? Where do your peers get their ideas about dating from? Where do they get their ideas about sex from? Are these sources reliable? Realistic? Respectful? What are the warning signs that a relationship is abusive? (Take them to this article, and go over the questions to help them recognize an abusive relationship). How much should you know someone before you even start the physical (even a kiss can bond you to someone, and bring on the “love is blind” syndome)? What would it look like to build a friendship first? How can your family help you determine if your date is a good person for you? How can you help a friend who you suspect is in an abusive relationship?
I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.
These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way. Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.
A couple of years ago, a student in an all-girl classroom I was speaking to shared that boys were grabbing their butts during passing periods. A show of hands indicated 29 out of 30 had experienced this! After hearing from them that if they protested “it would get worse,” I spoke to them clearly about what they were allowing, and why they should stand up to it, then put them in groups and tasked them with deciding what to do the next time it happened. One girl wrote me afterwards that the next time it happened, she slapped the guy. I’m not sure I intended to incent violence, but it WAS assault (let’s be clear!), and she finally treated it as such. She said she was treated with respect after that. Every year since, as I kept hammering home that “your body belongs to YOU,” the numbers came down…and this year only 3 in a class of 30 had been groped! It makes a difference when we talk to our teens and prepare them to stand up to sexual harassment. This is just one of the things Teen Decision does, as we talk to teens about sex, and dating.
According to a Washington Post article, in a national study on sexual harassment, “87 percent of respondents [ages 18-24] reported they had been the victim of at least one form of sexual harassment,” and “72 percent of men and 80 percent of women reported that they never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.” Parents, we have to do better! We’ve all seen the news about politicians and Hollywood celebrities getting away with sexual misbehavior for decades. Now is a great time to take advantage of the public conversation, and expose these boorish (often criminal) behaviors for what they are. The Post article has GREAT suggestions for how to talk to your teen. Take a moment to read the article, and have that conversation…NOW.
If you like the work Teen Decision does, and how we help boys AND girls advocate for themselves and stand strong for their right to “SAY NO” to sex…consider a donation! If you’re on our blog page now, look for the green “Donate” button. Or go to teendecision.org. People like you, who love and care about teens, are the ones who keep us going, and we need your help to finish 2017, as we stay on track to serve 8,000 students this school year.
With the arrival in theaters this month of Fifty Shades Darker, it’s time to get a sensible look at the messages of this book and movie series. With regard to teens, there’s nothing gray about this…it’s pretty black and white. Dr. Miriam Grossman wrote about the messages in this movie HERE, but I want to concentrate on a particularly persistent myth that I see not just in this movie series, but in the psyches of too many girls (and grown women). Dr. Grossman states the myth this way: “Christian’s emotional problems are cured by Anastasia’s love.” Haven’t we all seen the “bad boy” syndrome? I’ve been asked by decent, honorable, respectful guys: “Why do the girls seem to go for the bad boys?” I have two theories. One is that they are so deeply bonded to the guy (usually because they’ve gone pretty far sexually), that they ignore/excuse/tolerate what they would normally recognize as abominable behavior and an unhealthy relationship. It’s not glamorous, loving or healthy to accept abuse (emotional and/or physical), humiliation, manipulation, control or force. My second theory is that there is a powerful fantasy in thinking that MY love, MY attractiveness (a bit of narcissism?) can cure a seriously sick and unhealthy person. How many times have you (or your teen) talked yourself blue in the face trying to help someone see that their partner is a jerk, only to watch the train hurtle toward the inevitable crash. As Grossman points out: “Only in a movie. In the real world, Christian wouldn’t change to any significant degree.” And further, “In the real world, this story would end badly, with Christian in jail, and Ana in a shelter – or morgue. Or maybe Christian would continue beating Ana, and she’d stay and suffer. Either way, their lives would most definitely not be a fairy tale.” Please discuss these ideas with your sons and daughters, so they are reminded that unhealthy people make for unhealthy relationships, and your child deserves to be treated with caring, respect, empathy, and consideration. Toxic relationships are not handcuffs that are part of sex play like in the Fifty Shades story, they are chains and bonds that can drag a person under for years, even decades.
I remember vividly two letters I received from students last year recounting the effects of sexual abuse in dating relationships. In one case, a girl was experiencing constant nightmares a full two years after experiencing sexual force in a relationship with her 8th grade boyfriend. The other was depressed and cutting, again years after sexual abuse in a middle school relationship. But sexual abuse doesn’t just happen in the context of romantic dating relationships. It may happen at the hands of a “trusted” family friend, neighbor, or family member. We all hate to think it could happen, and parents may be the ones most likely to think “I would know if my child had been abused.” However, if some estimates are true that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been abused in some way sexually before the age of 18, then many more of us have children who have experienced abuse than we think. Why don’t our children tell us? According to an article about child sexual abuse, children don’t tell because of…
- Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family)
- Fear of being removed from the home
- Fear of not being believed
- Shame or guilt
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress says: “If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of that perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.”
Do your children know that they can talk to you? That you will listen? Maybe it’s time to have a conversation. Start with reading this article, and when you have that conversation, be sure to let your children know YOU can be trusted to listen and understand, and that nothing that might have happened to them is their fault.
In addition, here are some local resources…hotlines you or your child can call.
YWCA West Suburban Center. Glen Ellyn. Hotline: (630) 971-3927
Community Crisis Center. Elgin. Hotline: (847) 697-2380
Northwest CASA. Arlington Heights. Hotline: (888) 802-8890
Mutual Ground, Inc. Aurora. Hotline: (630) 897-8383