How Parents and Friends Can Help Victims of Teen Dating Violence

It doesn't happen in someone else's zip code or neighborhood. Teen relationship abuse can happen to anyone, and on the Main Line, there's a wealth of resources to help victims and their families.

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Illustration by Stefano Morri
See also "A Matter of Respect: Are You Abusive?"

It would never happen to your kid. Your daughter’s boyfriend wouldn’t call her stupid, crazy or a slut. Your son’s girlfriend would never go through his texts, emails and voicemails. No one would ever slap, punch or choke your daughter.

Yes, it happens—but to other people in other zip codes. Right?

“We opened the Bryn Mawr office for a reason,” says Janine Kelly, community education coordinator at the Women’s Center of Montgomery County. “Teen dating violence and domestic abuse are rampant on the Main Line. But no matter how many times we say that, no one ever imagines it will happen to their children.”

No amount of money, education or social status inoculates a teenager against an abusive relationship. In fact, experts say those things may even give the abuser more tools for control: With cell phones and social media, abusers can keep an electronic leash on their victims.

When does typical teenage drama become dangerous? Actually, it’s the lack of drama that is a warning sign. “Isolating the person from his or her friends is one of the first things an abuser does,” says Kelly. “When someone stops talking about the relationship altogether, information is being hidden. Something may be very wrong.”

And that’s a tough dose of reality for parents. “Teens don’t tell them everything about their relationships, even in good circumstances,” says Tommie Wilkins, director of training and education at Laurel House, a Norristown shelter and counseling center for abused women.

Love Is Respect, a joint project between the National Dating Abuse Helpline and Break the Cycle, found that one in three teens has been physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally abused by a partner. And one in 10 high school students has suffered physical injury.

Kelly and Wilkins conduct seminars at area colleges, high schools, middle schools, churches, synagogues, parent associations, community groups and anywhere else that will host them.
“Our primary message is that love is not control,” Kelly says. “I give examples of abusive behavior that people wouldn’t accept in their friends: name calling, extreme jealousy, threats, checking your phone, talking badly about your parents—let alone hitting or forcing you to have sex. Do you want friends who do those things? No. So why accept a boyfriend or girlfriend who does that? Saying, ‘I love you,’ doesn’t make any of that OK. That person doesn’t love you; that person wants to control you.”

Educators have another goal: reaching the friends of teenagers currently in abusive relationships. “They know what’s up long before parents do,” Wilkins says. “To teenagers, their friends are their life. They’ll do absolutely anything to help each other. I try to give them strategies to do just that.”

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