Teen Dating: Searching for Respect and Equality

Teen Dating: Searching for Respect and Equality

- in Featured, February 2015, Teens

The parents were anxious to meet their daughter’s new boyfriend at dinner. When they arrived at the restaurant, the young couple was already seated.

When it came time for the group to order, their daughter told the waiter she would like a cheeseburger and fries. The new boyfriend commented on her selection and then she decided to go with a salad instead.

As they all talked around the dinner table, the parents thought the boyfriend seemed nice and was very attentive to their daughter, almost overly focused on her.

Over the next few months, their daughter started to act and look different.

The fun-loving, energetic teen who would make plans with her friends — girls and boys — to go out in groups to the movies or mall, wasn’t interested in hanging out with anyone except her new boyfriend. She had also decided to drop her after-school activities.

When she was at home, she was quiet and reserved, and her phone would be buzzing with text messages and calls.

Her parents noticed their daughter was dressing differently. Her mother, who had recently bought her daughter a new dress for a special family event, wanted to see if the garment fit. However, her daughter refused to put on the bare-shoulder outfit, instead, she dressed in a turtleneck and pants for the ­affair, which was uncharacteristic for their teen daughter, who tended to “doll up” whenever she had an opportunity.

That semester, her grades slipped and her parents noticed her eyes looked tired and puffier most days.

Her mother, who accidently walked in on her daughter while she was dressing, saw a purple bruise on her teen’s arm.


While the above story is fictional, the warning signs of dating violence are not. According to the Liz Claiborne Inc. study on teen dating abuse conducted by Teen Research Unlimited in 2005, nearly one in five teenage girls who have been in a relationship report a boyfriend had threatened violence toward her or threatened to injure himself over a breakup.

While the statistics are sobering, there’s a way to help teens — and parents — understand how to build good relationships and watch for the warning signs of abusive ones.

Starting Healthy

Parents who have younger children might think it’s too early to begin the dating conversation, but it’s never too soon to talk about basic peer relationship skills.

Melissa McClain is the community education programs coordinator at Akron Children’s Hospital who facilities the hospital’s Respect program, which is free, teen violence prevention training for high schools in Northeast Ohio.

“Parents should talk to their kids from the beginning of their child’s life on how to treat others and manage negative emotions,” she says. “Those are the stepping stones of dating.”

When she talks to students, she provides them with the five keys to healthy relationships, which are honesty, trust, good communication, equality and respect.

“It’s really important for parents to talk about relationships and what (kids) should expect and what it means to trust someone,” McClain says.

Tim Boehnlein, director of Court & Visitation Services at the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC), advises parents to talk with their kids on how they will develop all types of relationships and they will have to make choices. It’s OK if they don’t want to spend time with a particular person.

Having your child learn about respectful relationships early is key, not only with peer interaction, but also with parents.

Boehnlein says.“It will be hard, and you might have a strong desire to say ‘I told you so,’ but be supportive and nonjudgmental when you talk (to them).

While it’s more common for girls to be subjects of dating ­violence, boys can also be victims.

“Adolescent females are a growing number, more than any other peer group, in terms of rates of violence, not just in ­intimate ­relationships, but across the board,” Boehnlein says. “Boys are reluctant to ask for help when they are being harmed because of masculinity (perceptions).”


Relationship Makes Wrong Turn

As your teen beings to experience dating, the last thing they would expect is for their relationship to turn violent. Here are some of the warning signs that parents can be aware of, ­courtesy of the DVCAC (dvcac.org):

– Bruises, scratches or other injuries;

– Failing grades;

– Dropping out of school activities;

– Avoiding friends and social events;

– Changes in clothes or make-up;

– Changes in eating or sleeping habits;

– Secrecy;

– Crying spells or hysteria fits;

– Alcohol or drug use;

– Anxiety or depression;

– Sudden changes in mood or personality.

– Boehnlein adds: “when (parents) begin to notice big changes in personality such as when “a very outgoing person is quiet or a good student slips in grades.”

He says one technique is for parents to bring up the topic of abusive relationships and how sometimes this happens. Tell how you would help a friend of yours or ask them how they would help a friend they knew who was being harmed.


Getting Help

There are many resources for families for advice and help from places such as the DVCAC.

In fact, legislation has been passed to help those ages 18 and younger who have been victims of domestic violence.

The Shynerra Grant Law pertains to civil protection orders against minor respondents, according to Ohio House Bill 10 Legislation. The juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over protection orders and consent agreements against minors under the domestic violence laws.

“It’s extremely important to send a message to young people that their lives are important,” Boehnlein says. “This allows them to access services (they couldn’t) prior to (the passage of the bill in) 2010. We encourage all of the clients to obtain protection ­orders whether they are juveniles or adults.”

Practicing safety, even with a protection order, is still important. The center is working toward identifying cases that are at high risk with a new assessment tool.

“The Domestic Violence High Risk Team Model will be implemented in Districts 1 and 5 of the Cleveland Division of Police Districts,” Boehnlein says. “This is the new domestic violence homicide prevention federal grant initiative that we will be ­implementing some time this year.”

The model offers a Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment, which provides a central communication tool to help identify high-risk offenders.

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, Mass., developed this in response to the 2002 murder of Dorothy Giunta-Cotter in Amesbury, Mass., by her husband William Cotter.

“After much analysis of the events leading up to Dorothy’s murder, the center designed and implemented an innovative approach to identify high-risk cases and interrupt predictable patterns of escalating violence,” Suzanne Dubus, the CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, wrote in a 2011 blog. “The team developed risk assessment tools based on the research of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell.”



Programs such as Respect from Akron Children’s Hospital and Project Ranger 360 from the DVCAC and Cleveland Rape Crisis Center provide an opportunity to get dating violence awareness information into local school districts.

Respect, in Summit, Cuyahoga, Medina and Stark counties, and Project Ranger 360 in Lakewood City Schools, work with student leaders and school administration.

“Our peer-wide program trains high school students about happy and healthy relationships,” McClain says.

The students in the Respect program, who might apply to be a participant or be ­chosen by their district, attend a one-day training to take back to their school.

McClain says that some students have conducted classroom education, put on student assemblies and one teen created a one-act play for the whole school.

“I think the universal message is regardless of (whether it’s) a boy or girl, that (we) get across is that it’s never OK to hurt someone else, and it’s never OK for someone to hurt you,” she says.

This is the first article in a two-part series on Teen Dating ­Violence. Next story will discuss Technology and Abusive Teen Relationships.

What should parents mention when talking to their teens about dating? Here are some suggestions provided by student leaders from Akron Children’s Hospital’s Respect Program, a free, teen violence prevention program for high schools in ­Northeast Ohio.

“Try your best to support your kids’ decisions regarding who they’re dating. Trust them to make their own mistakes and guide them as they learn.” — Shannon, 12th grade, Brecksville Broadview Heights High School

“Don’t impose your own beliefs when it comes to dating. Recognize the generation gap.” — Julia, 12th grade, Brecksville Broadview Heights High School

From more information, Melissa McClain 330-620-4355 or visit akronchildrens.org or email [email protected]

About the author

Angela Gartner is the editor at Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine. She previously served as editor for family and general interest magazines in the region. As a journalist, her articles and columns have appeared in newspapers and other publications including The News-Herald, Sun Newspapers as well as the Chicago Tribune. She grew up in Northeast Ohio and is a mom of two boys. The whole family is busy each weekend with sports and finding new happenings around the region. She loves reading books, being a board member at the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and taking the family dog, a Scottish Terrier named Jagger, on his walks.

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