Randolph, Mass., – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about one in four teens reports verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual violence each year. The recent death of the 18-year-old teenager in Wayland, Mass., put a face on this sobering statistic for teens and parents alike, who are asking themselves: how does this happen?
Adolescence is a time when teens learn how to make decisions about relationships with their friends, family, and dating partners. “Due to the nature of teenage dating relationships – usually shorter in duration and perceived more as ‘puppy love’ – it is often assumed that issues that arise in these relationships are less severe than if they were to occur in adult relationships,” states Shawn Healy, Ph.D., Director of the May Counseling Center in Walpole, one of May Institute’s three clinics in Massachusetts that offers outpatient evaluations and therapy to children, teens, and adults. “Unfortunately, abuse at any age can have devastating consequences if left unchallenged.”
Why teens are vulnerable
Typically, a teenage dating relationship represents the first “serious relationship” in a teen’s life. In the absence of other relationship experience to compare to, teens often think that their relationship dynamics are normal. A lack of emotional maturity and conflict resolution skills makes it especially hard for teenagers to miss warning signs. They may play down concerns, hope things will improve, or fear they will not be able to cope with a break-up.
Teens learn about how to treat others from a myriad of life experiences – in home, school, and community settings. These experiences can carry over into future relationships. “Often patterns and dynamics in relationships repeat, whether that is from family relationships to romantic relationships, or from one romantic relationship to another. This is why it is so important to be able to recognize the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior early on,” says Dr. Healy.
The development of a healthy identity comes from multiple contacts and interactions. “For example, if a teen is involved in sports, volunteers, has a fulfilling job, is active in a religious group or participates in a club, etc., then the teen has more opportunities to see themselves through the eyes of others to support their identity, and can compare negative messages from an abusive partner to positive messages coming from these other sources,” adds Dr. Healy.
Be alert to warning signs
Although there is no exact science to determine when teenage angst is likely to turn violent, Dr. Healy advises parents to be alert to potential problems if you notice that your teenager is experiencing the following:
If you suspect that your teen may be the abuser, there are many things you can do to address the situation and help your child. “The worst thing to do is to aggressively (verbally, emotionally, or physically) try to make your teen stop. Aggression directed at your teen will most likely reinforce the idea that the way you get someone to do what you want is to use force,” Dr. Healy explains. “Conversely, if your teen is the victim, the worst thing to do is minimize the situation, make excuses for the behavior, or ignore the situation and hope it goes away or gets better on its own.”
Help your teen establish healthy boundaries
As with any uncomfortable topic, if a teenager is not learning from you, they may be learning from someone else who may not have your child’s best interests in mind. Dr. Healy recommends the following tips to parents in helping their teen choose healthy, respectful relationships:
For additional information about recognizing the signs of teen abuse and dating violence, visit http://www.cdc.gov/chooserespect.
About May Institute
May Counseling Centers offer outpatient evaluation, counseling, and therapy to children, teens, and adults through three mental health clinics in Massachusetts. Our highly trained, multi-disciplinary team of psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, nurses, and interns provides specialized clinical care. They treat key emotional and behavioral concerns including teen abuse and violence, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, women’s issues, and learning disabilities. For more information about our behavioral health services, visit our website.
Founded in 1955, May Institute has its roots in a family’s vision of enabling children with disabilities to lead the fullest lives possible. Today, May Institute provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, mental illness, and behavioral health needs. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.