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Abusive Relationships and Teens

Relationship abuse in teenagers is not uncommon, and some teens might even view some types of abuse as normal. WebMD discusses the types of relationship abuse and what you can do to steer clear of dating violence.

Jennifer Gómez never forgot about her high school boyfriend after graduation. He haunted her in nightmares even after she moved away and changed her name. She says she would wake up with the memory of the abuse he inflicted on her fresh on her mind.

A few years later, he tracked her down online. “We had a phone conversation," Gomez says. "He hadn’t realized, for all these years, everything he’d done to me. He was living with the memory of the ideal us, how much he loved me. He didn’t have the realization of him being this monster to me. He has to live with the fact that he’s a monster in my eyes. I think that’s probably very difficult.”

Jennifer is now studying to become a psychologist, and she’s worked with teenaged girls to help them learn how to avoid abusive relationships.

Abusive behavior between teenaged guys and girls is common these days, as Jennifer and several experts told WebMD.

Some guys may have wrong ideas about abuse in relationships. For starters, abuse doesn’t just mean hitting or shoving. Many other behaviors actually count as abuse, some of which may surprise you.

Also, both guys and girls can be abusive. And behaviors that many teens think are normal actually aren’t cool at all.

But it’s not hard to avoid bad behavior, whether you’re dating, hooking up, or hanging out (and whether you consider yourself straight, gay, or any other category).

By recognizing abusive behavior, you can stay out of trouble, protect the people around you, and set yourself up to do well in the dating world later in life.

What’s Dating Abuse, and Who’s Doing It?

About 9% of teens are the victim of physical violence from a dating partner each year, according to the CDC. But much of the abuse that goes on between teens may not be physical, says Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on teen dating violence.

Very common problems in teens include:

  • Emotional abuse. This includes hurting someone’s feelings on purpose.
  • Verbal abuse. Yelling, making threats, or mocking the person you’re with counts as verbal abuse.
  • Controlling behavior. Calling a girlfriend repeatedly to ask where she is, telling her who she can hang out with, or reading her texts or checking her cell phone without her permission isn’t cool.

Also, pressuring or forcing someone into a sexual situation against her or his will is a serious form of abuse.

These days, some teens may see abusive behaviors as normal. Recent research shows that young male athletes may notice abusive behaviors less over the course of a sports season, and feel less inclined to speak up when they see abusive behaviors, Miller says. Jennifer Gómez says she was surprised how many teens -- of both genders - thought it was OK for girls to hit guys.

And after the story involving singers Chris Brown and Rihanna hit the news a few years ago, Emilio Ulloa, PhD -- another dating violence expert -- noticed that plenty of high-schoolers assumed that Rihannahad done something wrong. Teens he talked to said some of their friends “immediately asked questions about what Rihanna did to upset him, like ‘What kind of women is she? Why did she disrespect him?’”

Teens may do abusive things for many reasons. Some grow up in cultures that urge the men to be strong, which some guys confuse with being aggressive or controlling, says Ulloa, who researches dating violence at San Diego State University.

Sometimes teens pick up habits that they think are signs of love, but are actually controlling, like asking their girlfriends for their Facebook password. But jealous behaviors can start you on the path to physical types of abuse, Ulloa says. And, according to the CDC, people who think it’s alright for their friends to engage in dating violence are much more likely to get involved in it themselves.

Steering Clear of Dating Violence

Here’s how you can make the right choices while dating to protect yourself from being either the source or the victim of dating violence.

  • Get good practice. Even if you think you know what you’re doing when it comes to these matters, the teen years are the time to learn the rules about dating. In some ways, you’re getting practice for later relationships. “I think in some sense that this is the time when really good behaviors or bad behaviors can set in,” Ulloa says. Now’s a good time to make a habit of doing things that your dates will appreciate.
  • Know that abuse can mean big trouble. In some areas, crimes that are dating-related come with an extra penalty, Gómez points out. For example, if you key a girlfriend’s car, you could be looking at vandalism and additional teen relationship violence charges. And of course, hitting someone, slapping someone, or having sex with someone who has said “no” can bring serious legal action no matter where you live.
  • Listen to yourself. Know your own boundaries, Miller says. If you feel like an action is wrong, don’t do it - no matter what. If someone you like hits you or snoops in your email, you shouldn’t do it in return. Your friends might tell you “put your woman in line, she shouldn’t do that, and you should take control,” Ulloa says. Ignore them and be your own man. And if the person you’re dating is abusive, don't tolerate it, either.
  • Look at a healthy relationship. Sometimes knowing what’s normal and what’s unhealthy can be hard, Miller says. If you aren’t sure how you should act, ask an adult you trust. A coach, teacher, your parents, or a friend’s parent may be able to help you make the right choice. (Bonus points if you seek advice from an adult who shows respect toward other people and seems to know how to keep a healthy relationship).
  • Do something. If a friend or classmate is verbally or physically abusing someone, look for a safe way to put a stop to the situation, Miller says. For example, start speaking to the abuser to create a distraction. Or let an adult know what’s happening if it’s not safe for you to get involved. By taking action, you’ll be doing your bit to remind everyone that abuse shouldn’t be tolerated.
  • Remember you can’t control everything. If someone you like or love wants to stop seeing you, all the pleading, watching, and controlling in the world won’t make this person yours, Gómez says. “No matter how much you try to control someone, in the end you just can’t.” If you can’t trust someone - either because she isn’t trustworthy or you’re insecure when she’s away - you may need to let the relationship go.

If You're the Target

If someone is abusing you, it’s time to get help, come up with a plan to keep yourself safe (since an abuser may become more violent at this time), and get out, Gomez says.

If you’re facing an immediate threat to your safety, you can call 911. If you see warning signs that you’re being abused in a relationship in general, talk to an adult you trust, or, Miller says, try one of these web sites:

Or call the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 866-331-9474.

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