Your 15-year-old daughter has a new boyfriend. He's charming, attentive and says he's completely in love with her. She too says she is madly in love. But before you invite him over for a family dinner, take a step back. Is it really a healthy relationship? Or is one of the two being forced into a situation most teens do not know how to handle?
Parents learned Monday how it is imperative for them to look for warning signs of abuse and keep open lines of communication. One in three teens is in an abusive relationship, according to the Teen Dating Abuse Program, yet 81 percent of parents are clueless to the situation.
This was the overriding message at Monday morning's "Dealing With Teen Dating Abuse: Matters of Choice," a presentation at a combined Millburn High School PTO and MMAC meeting held at the Millburn Library. Roberta Zacker and Hanie Warshaw of the Linda and Rudy Slucker Center for Women ran the workshop. Since 1992, the organization has been offering a similar presentation in high school classrooms, teaching freshman about the warning signs and elements of abusive relationships in a two-day exercise.
"It's all about power and control," Zacker said "about one person need to control the other person completely. It's not love. It's control."
Many of the 30 parents at Monday's workshop had no idea their children learn about abusive relationships in school. Gail Barry, coordinator of MMAC, said she was pleased to see that the schools are working to heighten awareness of the issue, one that was once difficult to talk about and considered taboo.
The presentation started off with a short video depicting an abusive high school relationship. In the film, two lifelong best friends are starting high school, excited about finally having "real boyfriends." One enters a seemingly healthy relationship with a fellow freshman, while the other starts dating a junior. The relationship with the older boy rapidly turns abusive, and the friendship deteriorates as one girl does not know whether to "betray" her best friend by speaking with an adult.
After the video, Zacker told the 30 or so parents in the audience about the reasons people abuse and seek power, how to tell if their teen is being abused and how to constructively address the issue without further alienating the teen. One mother, who didn't give her name, felt the video was "extremely effective and realistic" and said she would definitely be talking to her teens about it.
The signs include emotional abuse like silent treatment and mind games, verbal abuse like name calling and public humiliation and sexual abuse like pressuring for sex, publicizing intimate activities. Other signs include threats like hurting you, destroying property; intimidation, frightening and stalking and isolation like possessiveness and limiting social contacts.
If a parent notices these signs, Zacker said she encourages them to help their child recognize the abuse. Be a good listener and keep lines of communication open.
Of course, these warning signs can also indicate other issues. "As a parent, if you see the high self esteem your child had start to be knocked down, you should talk to them," Zacker said. "But remember, it could be something else. Don't just jump to conclusions."
Once the abuse is acknowledged, more forward safely. "Absolutely do no demand they stop seeing each other, as this will only perpetuate the relationship," Zacker said. "Most importantly, help them break up safely. You may ask yourself, 'why would she stay?' but remember that to her, this is love. She thinks this is love. And you can't put that down; you can't just say 'Oh she's 14, what does she know about love?'"
The presentation wrapped with a discussion of the effects of technology on the dating world and how stalking and harassment have escalated since the dawn of cell phones, Facebook and other social networking tools.
Zacker's final word of advice sounds simple, but could prove difficult to follow. It applies once you and your child have recognized the abuse and are working to end it. After the break-up, create a support network and make sure he or she is never alone. "Let everybody know about it, don't keep it a secret," she said. "Have everyone you know help you protect your child."
For further information, Zacker recommends "What Parents Need to Know about Dating Violence" by Barrie Levy, "But I Love Him" by Dr. Jill Murray and "Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger" by Barrie Levy.