We don’t stick a 14-year-old in the car and let them drive off when their birthday arrives – so why do we do the equivalent when it comes to dating and relationships?
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and the Medicine Hat Women’s Shelter Society has partnered with the Medicine Hat Public Library to visit local middle schools, high schools, and other local youth support programming to make buttons that promote healthy relationships and share info on healthy relationships.
Why? Teenage romance is often portrayed as fluffy and silly – nothing of consequence. But we know that like driving safely, the behaviour, attitudes and experiences youth pick up now can reverberate through the rest of their life.
The Numbers: Teen Dating Violence Statistics
Stats for teen dating violence are tricky. Like many forms of abuse, it’s often under-reported, while data in Canada and the US is often more than a decade old. What are some of the numbers we have?
- Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide in the US experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.
- One in three girls in the US is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
- One in ten high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Teen victims of dating violence are at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence.
- In fact, a 2017 study led by U of Calgary professor (and former Hatter!) Deinera Exner-Cortens found that female victims of teen dating violence have almost one-and-a-half times greater risk for experiencing physical adult intimate partner violence.
Things to keep in mind when it comes to teen dating violence – and family violence in general
Abuse can come in many forms.
Physical abuse is the most obvious type, but there’s other forms such as verbal abuse, emotional abuse, social isolation, sexual abuse, financial abuse, property destruction, stalking, and technological abuse.
Abuse is about power and control.
It’s an attitude of: You’re mine. I own you. You’re my property. My wants and needs come first, and you must cater to them. I know best. It’s never my fault. I’m number one. If you don’t fall in line with this, I have the right to punish you.
Abuse is a pattern.
Typically, abusive relationships start with a honeymoon period where the abuser is charming, romantic and extremely loving. More subtle versions of control start to creep in (isolation/gaslighting/guilting), until there is a violent incident. This might be a terrifying tirade of verbal abuse, or that first physical attack. Then the abuser typically flips back to the honeymoon period, swearing they’ll never do it again, they’ll get help, they’re sorry, blaming alcohol/mental illness/anger issues. This cycle repeats, often escalating with the violence growing and the honeymoon period growing smaller.
Anyone can be a victim of abuse. Anyone can be abusive.
At MHWSS we see people from all backgrounds, all genders, all education levels, all races, all religions, all income levels. We never should make assumptions!
There is a gender dynamic to teen dating violence, and family violence.
Victims of the most high-risk, violent and deadly incidents are disproportionately female. Men disproportionately commit these incidents. Why? It ties into gender equality and how many men are still raised to believe women aren’t equals. This impacts attitude about who should have power and control in a relationship. Solving teen dating violence means addressing attitudes towards gender. Encouragingly, a recent study found that young men with progressive views on gender equality are less likely to be violent towards women and towards other men!
The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when they are leaving.
“Just break up” is the glib solution often given to abuse victims. But breaking up often leads to an escalation of threats and violence as the abuser tries to reassert power and control. In multiple cases, it has lead to homicide.
- Losing interest in activities and interests that used to be important to them
- Becoming distant from friends and family
- Personality change, depression, anxiety, becoming withdrawn, exhaustion, drop in grades
- Becoming more critical of themselves with self-blame/deprecation
- Having to be in constant contact with their partner (texting, phone calls, online messaging), including checking to say where they are and who they are with
- Their partner always seem to make the decisions about what they do
- Changing their clothing/make up/etc. based on what the partner wants
- Fear over not keeping their partner happy
- Injuries they try to cover up/can’t explain
- High risk behaviour
It’s possible you may not even notice these signs or others - Victims of abuse often hide what they’re going through, while abusers can be friendly and charming. Or these warning signs could be related not to abuse but something else like struggling with mental health. That’s why it’s important to build a relationship with the teens in your life based on trust, communication and support.
Tips to Talk with Teens
Make it a conversation. Not a lecture.
You can be clear and firm about your expectations and values – Abuse is wrong. Hurting and controlling a partner is wrong. No means no – but also give youth space to discuss their opinions, observations, experiences and feelings without judgment. You might be surprised at how insightful they are!
Walk the talk.
Youth are often frustrated about double standards and hypocrisy from adults. Evaluate your own relationships. Do you practice clear and honest communication? Do you respect boundaries and get consent? Do you take responsibility for your mistakes? Do you treat your partner as an equal? How do you handle being upset, frustrated or angry in a way that’s healthy?
Keep the conversation rolling.
One “big talk” isn’t enough. It’s important to be an active part of their life and check in with them regularly. Use what’s happening in the news, movies, tv shows or just in their life to continue the conversation about healthy relationships.
Avoid freaking out.
Youth watch how adults react when bad things happen and use this to measure what will happen if they come to you with a problem. If your standard reaction is to flip out, punish, shame, “I told you so,” and more – they’re going to avoid sharing problems with you.
I think my tween/teen is in an abusive relationship – What can I do?
This can be a tricky situation to navigate, especially when the parental instinct is to swoop in, protect, and take control! Forcing the youth to break up with their partner could backfire, or even put yours and their safety at risk.
“SNCit” is a useful approach  that calls on people to see, name, and check the abuse.
- SEE the abuse and acknowledge the red flags instead of brushing them off.
- NAME the concern to the person. Stick to the facts, like “I’m worried about you, I saw, I heard, I’ve noticed.” ,
- CHECK it. Ask questions – what do they want to do? How can you make them less isolated? Is the situation dangerous and do police need to be called? What other supports can you reach out to?
We're more than a shelter.
If you’re not sure how to deal with the situation, MHWSS can provide you support, advice and education. Alongside our shelter facilities, we have:
- 24/7 help line – 403-529-1091 or 1-800-661-7949 for help and support, information, referrals and more.
- Child & Youth Support: Specialized programming for children and youth who have experienced family violence.
- Outreach Programming at the Ridge Medical Professional Building (5-1036 7th Street SW), our Outreach staff can provide one-to-one and family support, without having to come into shelter. Because the office is located among medical offices, it provides a sense of privacy, alongside one-to-one and family support.
- Safety Planning: We can work with the teen and you to come up with ways to improve their safety – both physical and emotional.
P.S., Here's a list of books you can borrow from the Medicine Hat Public Library about Building Healthy Relationships.
Have questions? Don’t hesitate to give us a call! 403-529-1091 or 1-800-661-7949
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Physical Dating Violence Among High School Students—United States, 2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 19, 2006, Vol. 55, No. 19.
 Davis, Antoinette, MPH. 2008. Interpersonal and Physical Dating Violence among Teens. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency Focus. Available at http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2008_focus_teen_dating_violence.pdf.
 Grunbaum JA, Kann L, Kinchen S, et al. 2004. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2003. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 53(SS02); 1-96. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5302a1.htm.
 Jay G. Silverman, PhD; Anita Raj, PhD; Lorelei A. Mucci, MPH; Jeanne E. Hathaway, MD, MPH, “Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality” JAMA. 2001;286(5):572-579. doi:10.1001/jama.286.5.572