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The dark side of teen dating

Domestic violence is rising among teenagers. Intervention is the best prevention, experts say.

June 20, 2005|Pat Burson | Newsday

She was a pudgy 13-year-old; he was a hockey goalie with crystal-clear blue eyes. While other kids made fun of Jessica Wickiewicz, the goalie said he thought she was beautiful.

They started dating in seventh grade. He started hitting her their senior year.

It began gradually. He'd yell at her, accuse her of flirting with other guys and harp on the shortness of her cheerleading skirt. Then he started punching her, kicking her and pulling her hair, ordering her around and cutting her off from her friends. Sometimes he'd force her to have sex. After some of the harshest blows, he'd go to her with apologies and flowers.

She blamed her bruises on the rigors of cheerleading and hid them under baggy jeans and sweatshirts. "My own mother didn't know," says Wickiewicz, of Garden City, N.Y., now 28. "It was all a big secret."

Experts in domestic violence agree that teens are increasingly finding themselves in abusive, sometimes violent dating relationships, and the problem is bigger than most people know. Wickiewicz's experiences, though a decade past, are nevertheless indicative of the trend.

Jill Murray, a licensed psychotherapist in Laguna Niguel, views the problem as "epidemic."

"We know that one in three girls will be in a physically abusive relationship by the time she graduates high school," says Murray, who wrote "But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter From Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships." "We know that many, many more than that are in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship. I don't know of any disease that affects such a large number of people."

Part of the problem is that when people talk about domestic violence, they usually envision older perpetrators and victims. But those who study youths say that teens are engaging in verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse with their dating partners.

While girls are more likely to report abuse, they aren't the only victims. Studies show that one in five boys will experience some form of violence in a relationship before graduating from high school, although researchers point out that they are less likely than girls to report being hit or called names because they don't see it as serious or hurtful -- or they want to save face.

Late last month, a Gallup Youth Survey of 13- to 17-year-olds reported that one in eight teens knows someone in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Abuse doesn't have to be hitting. Name-calling and put-downs are examples of verbal abuse. Emotional abuse can involve threatening, intimidating or isolating another.

Physical abuse can run the gamut from pinching to pushing to punching. Sexual abuse can include making unwanted sexual comments, contact or gestures, as well as forcing sex.

"It's a pattern of behavior where one has more control and is using that to control another person," says Karen Gillespie, who coordinates the school-based abuse prevention program 180, Turning Lives Around, based in Hazlet, N.J. "It continues and will typically get worse over time."

Why is this happening? Some say parents haven't done enough to teach the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Others say it's the result of TV, movies, video games and music that promote violence and objectify women.

These are complicated times for young people, says Stephanie Nilva, director of Break the Cycle New York, a chapter of a national legal services organization that provides prevention and intervention to youths aged 12 to 22 involved in dating abuse and domestic violence. "Their identities aren't really formed. They're in their very first relationships and are exposed to many negative messages," she says. "It can be very difficult for teens to identify what's safe and healthy during a particularly confusing stage in their development."

Even if a boyfriend or girlfriend is hurting them, Nilva says, many youths forgo legal protection because they don't want to involve the police or criminal courts.

"Many teens don't want to punish their abusers in the criminal system," she adds, "so they simply remain in danger."

That's why it's critical that the people in a young person's life become educated about the issue of teen dating violence, know the warning signs and be aware of how any sudden changes in behavior can indicate trouble, experts say.

Is the teen spending more time than usual in the bedroom? Spending less time with friends? Is there a change in the teen's group of friends or style of dress? Do you see any unusual marks on the neck or arms, signs of depression or aggressive behavior?

If any of these signs are present, it's time for a talk, says Ellen deLara, who teaches social work at Syracuse University and coauthored "And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents From Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence." Intervening is the best violence prevention measure, she says. "Left to their own immature devices for navigating relationships," DeLara adds, "their solutions are often rash and impulsive."

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