Love Shouldn't Hurt: Teen Dating Abuse

Love Shouldn't Hurt: Teen Dating Abuse

The former professional athlete sat in the therapist’s office, sobbing. He and his wife had taken away their daughter’s cellphone the day before. While watching television that night, a picture of the boy their daughter was “talking” to popped up. It wasn’t just any picture. It was a sexual pose with private parts exposed.

Shocked at what they saw, they had their daughter open up her phone. They were stunned to see many compromising pictures, not only of the boy, but of their daughter as well.

Devastated, the father asked the therapist, “How could this be? I will never be able to erase these images from my brain. What do we do now?”

At a July 2016 conference on healthy relationships, Dr. Jill Murray, psychologist and author of But He Never Hit Me and Destructive Relationships, shared her experience working at a domestic violence shelter. She found that every woman she interviewed there began their abusive relationships when they were 13 or 14 years old, going from abuser to abuser.

While many parents might automatically suspect physical abuse, some don’t consider the possibility of abuse with incredibly controlling behavior using cellphones.

Consider this:

  • 54 percent of teens say they communicate hourly with the person they are dating via cellphone between midnight and 5 a.m.
  • 38 percent of teens receive texts 30 to 50 times an hour by their boy/girlfriend inquiring about what they are doing.
  • 78 percent of parents are unaware their teen feels afraid in their dating relationship.
  • 87 percent of parents are unaware their teen has been asked to have sex via their cellphone.
  • 82 percent of parents are unaware of cellphone use through the night.

Current statistics indicate that:

  • 1 in 5 young women will be a victim of sexual assault in college.
  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 guys will be in a physically violent relationship.
  • The vast majority (85 percent) of teen violence is not physical at all. Rather, it is emotional and verbal abuse.
  • 1.5 million high school students experience physical abuse from a dating partner.
  • Gender is not a qualifier.

“This is a huge epidemic,” asserts Murray. “The reason I use the word 'epidemic' is because if we had a disease in this country that affected 85 percent of teens we would consider it an epidemic. This is a huge problem that we can’t overlook.

“When I speak to teens I tell them, 'If you are ever in a relationship where you feel frightened, scared to tell the truth, scared of making them angry, scared not to keep your cellphone on all night, or you spend a lot of time crying about your relationship, you are in an abusive relationship,'” Murray says.

“It is important to remember that teens have limited life experience and perspective. Their perspective is shaped by music, video games and the Kardashians. When we tell them it is not normal to be afraid or to not answer your cell at all hours of the day and night, they are shocked.”

A typical 14-year-old has no idea that a relationship is abusive when one person makes the rules, constantly changes the rules but doesn’t follow them and causes the other person in the relationship to be afraid of breaking the rules. Murray believes adults everywhere have a responsibility to educate young people about what healthy relationships look like and how to protect themselves from abusive ones.

“Education is the key,” Murray says. “In addition to teaching teens, parents need to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of abusive relationships.”

Your Teen Might Be in an Abusive Relationship IF:

  • He/she becomes physically agitated, nervous or unreasonably upset about giving up their cellphone at night.
  • He/she is always tired and seems like they don’t rest because of nighttime texting.
  • The person he/she is dating seems to try and isolate them from friends, family and their typical activities.
  • They cry frequently, seem nervous and have trouble making decisions.
  • They are constantly “reporting in” to their boy/girlfriend.

What Can You Do?

“I tell teens, love is a behavior,” Murray says. “Teens are feeling, feeling, feeling to the 10th power. Everything is big and dramatic. You can tell yourself that your feelings are anything. Then you get them to just look at behavior. Things like: He cheats on you. Is that loving behavior? She lies to you. Is that loving behavior? You're losing sleep. Is that loving behavior?

“It gives them the opportunity to open up boxes in their head. It’s a new way of looking at their relationship that focuses on behavior. This is really important. This is the only way we can talk with them. Essentially, we are backing them into a corner where their only out is logic. Then, I tell them there are three things you have control over: your thoughts, your actions and your reactions. And hoping things will be different is not a strategy.”

Although most parents probably don't think this could happen to their child, ignorance can be very dangerous. Despite the tension it may cause, conversations on this topic are critical. Make sure they understand what healthy and unhealthy behavior looks like in a relationship, because this has the potential to impact them long into adulthood.