I overheard a conversation the other day that made me stop and listen. My teenage son was outside with a same-age peer discussing another child they went to school with. This peer had a girlfriend and he was becoming the topic of gossip because he texted her hundreds of times a day, would get upset and cause a scene if she hung out with anyone other than him and told her who she could and couldn’t spend time with. My son and his friend recognized this behavior was not normal. As I listened, my parental and professional hackles rose as I saw the danger in this situation. These kids were seventh graders.
Although society and particularly law enforcement have come a long way in recognizing the danger and criminal nature of domestic violence, we still often think of it only in adult terms. Unfortunately, relationship violence begins way before a child turns eighteen. In fact, as many as one-third of all girls will experience relationship abuse during their adolescence. Young women aged 16-24 years of age experience the highest rate of relationship violence according to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. It doesn’t just happen to girls. So as juvenile justice professionals, we have to change the lens we use to view interactions between adolescents. For example, it is easy to pass by a group of teens, male and female, and see some horseplay, maybe some pushing and shoving and write it off as kids being kids. Or when an officer goes out to a house on a 9-1-1 call of a family fight only to find two teenagers home. It’s too easy to treat this situation differently than if they were adults. We can’t change this lens to only include the older teens that we associate with beginning relationships because children are starting younger and younger with estimates saying kids as young as eleven or twelve are becoming sexually active. We have to look around not only at the high school but at the middle school as well. No one especially those in juvenile justice want to be faced with a death that if we had just paid attention to the warning signs could have been avoided.
Although abusers come from all sorts of backgrounds, often teens learn abusive patterns at home. As many as 10 million children witness domestic violence at home every year. Many times, they then carry those over into their own relationships. The U.S. Advisory Board on Child and Abuse states children who witness domestic violence are at an extreme risk to becoming batterers themselves. Many times these are the kids that are in the house when officers are separating their parents. This is one of the reasons that multi-disciplinary teams including juvenile justice and social services are focusing on providing services to children who witness domestic violence in the hopes of supporting them and teaching them healthy relationship skills.
The Power of Peers
In his book, Yes, Your Teen is Crazy Michael J. Bradley explains the increasing importance of peer relationships during adolescents. Being humiliated in front of his or her peer group is often the worse fear of a teenager. He or she seeks approval and during this time period his or her self-worth seems to be tied up in peer acceptance. Due to this and all the hormones that throw teens physiologically out of whack, they often excuse or overlook the beginning of an abusive relationship. Because they are trying out their autonomy, they often avoid seeking out an adult because they want to be able to handle the situation on their own. They want to be independent in their choices and their decisions. Unfortunately, this is one area where we do not want them to be on their own. That’s where supportive adults including law enforcement can step in.
A Unique Position
School Resource Officers and those who work in a mentoring capacity have a unique opportunity to see warning signs. They are also in a position to offer an open door to teenagers who need a safe person to go to. Being open makes you available not only to the victim but also to concerned friends and family. When those that educate themselves on the warning signs and the best ways to reach out to and support those who are experiencing relationships violence, they can share this information with other adults such as parents, teachers, peers and other supportive adults making the blanket of support even larger.
Some signs a teenager might be in an abusive relationship:
- Controlling Behavior
- His/her significant other won’t allow him/her to hang out with friends
- Calling and/or texting frequently to find out where he/she is, whom he/she is with and what he/she is doing
- Having to be with him/her all the time
- Verbal/Emotional/Physical/Sexual Abuse
- Name calling and/or belittling
- Threatening to hurt him/her or a family member if he/she doesn’t do what they want
- Hitting, slapping, kicking, pinching,
- Unwanted touching and kissing
- Forcing him/her to do sexual things
What you witness in the halls or at the park may not be the only avenue abusers are using. Remember domestic violence is about power and control. Technology has provided a new route for abusers to threaten, stalk and harass their victims.
As juvenile justice professionals we have to keep our eyes out for what is going on with kids. The disturbing increasing trend of relationship violence that is plaguing our young people is one of those things that we must address and find solutions for. Education, awareness and openness are a few ways of implementing these solutions. We cannot turn a blind or naïve eye to the issues that are facing children in their relationships. We can reach out. We can let them know that they are not alone. We can let the abuser know that his or her behavior will not be tolerated. Mostly we need to stay vigilant and protect society’s children. If we do, then maybe the overheard conversations will be about basketball and dances and not about abuse.