When Love Hurts: The truth about dating violence

Teen dating violence is more prominent than you may think. Here’s why you should talk to your child about it today.

Jennifer Anne Crecente was the kind of teenager parents dream of. An energetic honour roll student, Jennifer volunteered at a hospital in Austin, Texas and was a fan of the arts. She even acted alongside her father, Drew Crecente, in two musicals at their local arts centre. A loving and open girl, Jennifer was extremely close with her family, often turning to her parents for advice on everything from schoolwork to drugs and even sex.

When she began dating a boy named Justin, everything seemed fine. Soon, however, she began to notice that he seemed troubled. When Justin dropped out of school and was sent to a camp for young offenders, Jennifer told him that she didn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore. A few months later, Justin shot and killed her in a field near her home. Jennifer was 18.

According to The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 21 per cent of high school-aged girls and 10 per cent of boys who date have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their partner. Unfortunately for Jennifer, this violence ended her life.

Crushed by the horrific loss of his only child, Jennifer’s father devoted his time to researching teen dating violence (TDV). He started Jennifer Ann’s Group (jenniferann.org), to promote awareness of this growing trend and provide help for other parents and teenagers. He didn’t want others to suffer the way Jennifer had.

“I decided I needed to start an organization in her name and in her memory…Part of my frustration, especially at the time [of Jennifer’s death] is that this issue wasn’t on my radar the way it needed to be,” says Crecente.

This intimate type of abuse occurs between two people who are in a close relationship. It can be physical (hitting, punching), emotional (verbal abuse, cruel texts or emails or teasing) or sexual. Stalking is another common form of TDV that can cause anxiety and fear.

According to experts at Child Trends (childtrends.org), a non-profit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families, teens are more likely to become abusive if they have suffered abuse themselves, have inattentive or harsh parents, abuse substances like alcohol and drugs, are depressed or anxious, live in high-crime neighbourhoods, are antisocial or hang out with other delinquents.

While there’s some education about this topic in schools, Crecente says there’s a major need to make information about TDV more commonplace. “We know to look both ways before we cross the street,” he says. “We don’t know that certain behaviour is unhealthy in a relationship.”

The other problem: parents aren’t talking to their kids. Whether it’s because the kids are unwilling to confide in their parents or because the parents feel too busy for a sit down or aren’t adept at discussing uncomfortable topics, these conversations aren’t happening as often as they should. “If you’re a young person who does not have a prior relationship with which to compare this one, you do not have a way to know what is OK and what isn’t…you can’t turn to your peers because they know as little as you do,” says Crecente. Teens need a trusted adult (be it a parent, school counselor or close family friend) to help guide them through this emotional roller coaster.

Experts from Child Trends suggest talking to your kids about healthy relationships from an early age (in the tweens or even earlier). Discuss traits that make good friends (like empathy, kindness and understanding), and those (like jealousy, being possessive, over critical or demeaning) that are worrying.

Assume a neutral standpoint and don’t personalize it, they say. Avoid ultimatums and extreme statements such as “you can never date.” Another no-no: speaking violently. Don’t raise your voice and never say something like “I’d kill anyone who hurt you.” This could make your child afraid to approach you. It’s also important to look for warning signs and monitor your child’s behaviour and online presence. “Technology has created a new platform for dating violence to occur, and this type of abuse is fairly common,” say the experts. According to Child Trends, between 10 and 25 per cent of dating youth experienced cyber abuse in their relationship.

Come up with a safety word or phrase that your child can say over the phone when she’s in trouble. It can be anything—like popcorn or I found your running shoes. When you hear it, you’ll know she’s in serious trouble and you need to contact the authorities.

Another must: have her memorize the phone numbers of family and friends. Her abuser may take away her phone, but this doesn’t mean she won’t be able to get a hold of another one. Whatever you do, don’t assume you know everything there is to know about your teen. You don’t. And never assume that something like TDV won’t happen to her. Just because you live in a posh neighbourhood and have an honour roll student, doesn’t make her immune.

“I use Jen’s name. I use her image. I use stories about her for people to relate to her,” says Crecente. “For people to see that it does happen. It happens to people’s daughters, their sisters, the girl down the street…she was a real person. And she was just as real and just as strong as your kid.”

Warning signs of an unhealthy relationship may be difficult to detect, say experts from Child Trends. A few things you should watch for include:

• Suspicious bruises
• Lower grades
• Loss of interest in hobbies
• An immediate need to respond to call or texts
• Having a partner who is significantly older (three years or more)

Originally published in INBETWEEN Magazine. August, 2016