Sarah was a high school freshman when she met Eric, a senior. When they started dating, Sarah's friends were amazed at Eric's loyalty. "He came to all my soccer games," she recalls, "and followed the bus home in his car." But trailing the bus was as much a way for Eric to keep tabs on Sarah as it was a gesture of devotion. "Then he started telling me what to wear, how to fix my hair, and that I was getting fat," she says. Next Eric started the verbal abuse, criticizing Sarah for no reason and calling her stupid.
Two years was enough -- Sarah wanted out, but she says "he wasn't taking no for an answer." He was still following her bus, and shadowing her at her part-time job. When he asked Sarah why she had taken down pictures of them as a couple displayed in her bedroom, Sarah knew Eric had been sneaking into her house. Sarah was frightened and didn't know how to stop him.
A Rising Problem
Sarah's problem isn't an isolated incident. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that 1 in 5 high school students experiences physical or sexual abuse by a dating partner. Stalking and verbal abuse have been linked to many problems, including early sexual activity, substance abuse, even suicide attempts.
The problem isn't confined to kids with poor self-esteem, notes Barrie Levy, author of What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence. Many teens have no idea what a healthy relationship looks like, especially if parents are separated or don't get along.
Educators have become more proactive in spelling out acceptable and unacceptable dating behavior. School-based programs such as Safe Dates help bridge the gap. Originated by Vangie A. Foshee, associate professor of health education at the University of North Carolina, Safe Dates covers topics from dating abuse to helping a friend. Teens enrolled in Safe Dates reported less dating violence, even four years after the program.
Emotional abuse can be as devastating as the physical or sexual kind. Pamela Glenn, a certified nurse-midwife and educator, teaches Minnesota high school students about dating violence and abuse, noting that neither sex has a monopoly on emotional abuse. She points to some classic warning signs -- situations that should set off an alarm to whoever is on the receiving end as well as to parents.
Such red-flag behaviors include:
- Isolating the partner from family, friends, and activities that don't include the abuser
- Saying "I love you" too early in the relationship
- Degrading the partner
- Showing extreme jealousy and possessiveness
- Intimidating behavior -- breaking cherished possessions or suggesting physical harm
- Setting up no-win situations: For example, a boy buys a girl a sexy blouse but objects if she gets admiring glances while wearing it
- Manipulating emotions, such as threatening to commit suicide if the partner leaves
Glenn adds that many abusers are adept at displaying their worst behavior at times when no one else is around to witness it. Some abusers minimize their actions or try to place the blame on the partner. Over time, some partners mistakenly believe that they are at fault.
The best way to avoid abusive relationships is to talk openly with your child, not only about school and social life but also about relationships. Watch for hints of trouble, such as depression, confusion, and self-doubt.
"Lay down general dating rules and meet the people your kids go out with," says Foshee. Leaving an abusive relationship takes careful planning. Some steps teens can take to end the relationship include:
- Be physically unavailable. Have your teen avoid places her ex hangs out, and don't let her answer the door or phone. Teens wanting to put distance between an ex may even consider transferring to another school.
- Tell everyone about it. Get the word out about the breakup so that friends can become part of the safety plan, offering moral support and watching out for the ex.
- Keep yourself in the loop. Ask questions daily about whether your teen has had contact with the ex. Let your teen know that you aren't trying to invade her privacy, but that you love her and only want the best for her.
- Seek help from the courts. Eugene Hyman, a judge in Santa Clara County, California, is an expert in toxic relationships and the originator of the first juvenile and domestic violence court especially for teens. Hyman's program uses many tools in reforming an abuser, including a 26-week intervention program covering power and control, and much more. Victims also get counseling and legal assistance.
Even if such programs aren't available in your area, there is much you can do. In the end, and with her mom's help, Sarah found a counselor and was also able to file a restraining order against Eric. The harassment stopped. Today Sarah is safe and happily married -- to someone else.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, November 2005.