When Romance Rages?
At 17, Amy Lucas* was a quiet girl who played flute in the marching band, participated in school government and starred in several drama club productions. She also had a boyfriend named Tommy* who often slapped her, pulled her hair and once forced her to have sex with him.
“I never told anyone. Not my parents, not my sister, nor any of my friends,” says Lucas, now 23. “No one knew at all except me and Tommy.” And since his attacks usually didn’t leave any physical bruises, Lucas said it was easy to pretend everything was OK and to hide what was going on from her those who knew her best.
Unfortunately, Lucas’ story is one of many.
“About 65 percent of teens, most of whom are women, report that they have been forced to have sex with, or were hit by, a partner at some point in a relationship,” says Dr. Virginia Feldman, a pediatrician who heads the Child Abuse Team and the Family Violence Task Force in Portland, Ore.
Chances are you may know a teen that is being physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. It may even be your own child.
Because adolescents often distance themselves from their parents in an effort to assert their independence, you must strive harder to recognize the signs of abuse.
Even if you do not talk together as much as you did when your child was younger, Feldman says you can still look for these signs, which may indicate he or she is involved in a physically abusive relationship:
- A dramatic change in your child’s style of dress.
- Bruises, scratches or other injuries, especially if the explanations for how the injuries were received are questionable.
- A dip in academic performance and dropping after-school activities that used to interest him or her.
- A significant other who shows excessive jealousy. This is a sign of control, Feldman says.
- Spending all spare time with the boyfriend or girlfriend. This may not even be by choice; the boyfriend may be forcing your child to spend as much time as possible with him.
- Focusing exclusively on boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Crying jags.
- Getting close too quickly. This may be a sign that “No” is not an option for your child where the boyfriend or girlfriend is concerned.
- Boyfriend or girlfriend frequently loses his or her temper.
- Boyfriend or girlfriend often goes overboard on the positives, like showering your child with 10 dozen roses.
“Parents don’t often see what caused the 10 dozen roses in the first place,” Feldman says. “Basically, if a parent has a gut reaction that something is wrong, it probably is.”
How the Cycle Begins
Often self-esteem issues are at the core of violent patterns.
“In the teenage population, a lot of young women’s self-esteem is so low that it is only elevated when a boyfriend or girlfriend steps into the picture,” says Dr. Stan J. Katz, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “They may feel that having a boyfriend who abuses them is better than not having a boyfriend at all.”
This may especially be the case if the abusive relationship is the teen’s first love, he says.
“It is extremely powerful,” Katz says. “Even after they have been abused several times, what happens is all the boy has to do is say he loves her after the abuse and she feels good again.”
Although major similarities exist between teen victims and their adult counterparts, one big difference is that teens who are abused often still love their abusers. “Adult women often stay in abusive situations out of fear for themselves or their children or even because of financial dependence. They feel trapped in their situations,” Katz says. “But teens often stay because of love.”
This happens because the abuser can often turn the beating or forced sex into a loving event by apologizing profusely and promising to change and then being really attentive and loving for awhile. Called the “honeymoon stage,” this period of the abuse cycle can confuse someone who only feels good about themselves if showered with affection.
The abuser may also turn the situation around and make the victim feel like it is his or her fault.
“It’s not so different from a parent that says, ‘I only beat my child because I care about [him or her],'” Katz says. “But so much of it comes from self-esteem and self-love. Someone who is looking for structure can misinterpret abuse for love. It can become quite a paradox.”
Prevention and Intervention
The abuse model is one of forced control using words, violence or even the threat of violence, says Feldman. “Anger-control workshops and classes won’t help because it is such an ingrained pattern of behavior for the abuser by this point.”
Suggestions for teaching your child a more acceptable way to channel anger and feel good about himself or herself can include:
Ditch stereotypical gender roles.
Don’t reinforce the idea that boys fight or that “boys will be boys.” Encouraging such ideas sends the message that violence by males is not only acceptable, but also expected.
Raise children to be sensitive to violence.
Today, when seemingly every movie or video game solves difficulties with another by shooting them, it’s important to let kids know that real life is not like the movies.
Raise girls with self-esteem.
Teach them that they are not second-class citizens. Encourage and praise them, not just when they are toddlers learning to run or say a new word, but also when they are finding their bearings in early adolescence.
Teach how to settle conflicts peacefully.
Encourage mediation or similar school programs to settle disputes. Tell your kids that they have options, including the choice to walk away from a fight.
Model good behavior.
Children learn more from what they see you do than from what you tell them. Be sure you’re sending clear messages with how you handle conflict.
Teach “zero tolerance.”
Tell your children that if they are ever threatened with being hit, it is not a relationship they want to be in. One hit, threat, slap, kick, punch or verbal assault is one too many.
Teach the power of words.
Many abusers use emotional abuse as their weapon. Such behavior can leave lasting psychological scars that may take most of a lifetime to heal. “There are guys I counsel who never hit a woman, but they will scream, yell, get in [her] face and control her,” Katz says. “They think that because they don’t hit, they aren’t hurting their women but they are wrong.”
Stopping the Abuse
If you are convinced that your child is being battered, talk to someone — a doctor, social worker, domestic violence shelter worker or police officer — who can help you assess the situation and decide the next step. But avoid confronting the suspected batterer.
“You never know what actually happened. Confronting the perpetrator is never, ever the right thing to do,” Feldman says.
You can get a restraining order (sometimes called an order of protection) to keep the batterer away from your child. Either the police or a domestic violence case worker can help with this. The order will require that the batterer stay a set distance away from your child at all times. Violations subject the batterer to arrest.
Remember to talk with your child. If he or she is afraid, validate that feeling. Then praise him or her for making the steps to correct the situation. Emphasize that the violence was not his or her fault.
Also use caution. The most dangerous time for any victim of domestic violence is just after he or she ends the relationship. This is because the batterer feels threatened by the loss of control over the victim.
A dating relationship may be different than a married one, but it can be potentially just as violent and volatile, warns Feldman.
If your child is a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.