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Adults should help teens deal with dating violence
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Adults should help teens deal with dating violence

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By Christine Murray

This month, several agencies in Greensboro are raising awareness about teen dating violence. I’m fortunate to be working with other professionals representing various community organizations — including the Greensboro Police Department, Greensboro Parks and Recreation, Family Service of the Piedmont and N.C. A&T State University — to plan the “No Hatin’ ’n Datin’ ” event Feb. 20. These organizations will work all month to raise awareness about teen dating violence and the local resources available to help.

Teen dating violence is difficult to discuss. Nobody wants to imagine that a young person could experience physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse within a dating relationship. Young love is supposed to be exciting, romantic and innocent, right?

And yet, we know that many teens experience unhealthy dynamics within their dating relationships. For example, Loveisrespect.org reports that as many as one-third of all U.S. adolescents will experience some form of dating violence, with one-fourth of high school girls having experienced physical or sexual abuse.

Many parents are out of touch with the scope of teen dating violence. Only about 20 percent believe that teen dating violence is an issue that teens face. Many schools, religious organizations and other community groups also are hesitant to address teen dating violence and fail to acknowledge that their youth may be at risk.

Part of the challenge in identifying unhealthy dating relationships is the fact that some aspects of “young love” that are viewed as normal are actually red flags for abuse. For example, teens may view their partners’ frequent checking in by text message or phone calls as a sign of affection, even if it’s actually a sign that their partners are controlling and possessive. Because of their limited relationship experience, teens may struggle to know what’s normal. They may have strong feelings of infatuation toward their partners and not feel comfortable discussing their dating concerns with others, especially adults.

Any adult who interacts with children and teens can help prevent teen dating violence and provide support to teens who are or have been in unhealthy relationships. I offer the following six suggestions for adults who are interested in helping the young people in their lives understand and build healthy relationships.

l First, establishing the foundation for healthy relationships can begin from the day children are born. If you are a parent or grandparent of a preteen, you can help prevent teen dating violence by modeling healthy relationships, including intimate relationships. Children learn from watching how their parents and other trusted adults handle conflict and address relationship challenges. What are the messages your own relationship patterns may be sending to the young people in your life?

l Second, adults can teach children of all ages how to behave in nonviolent, respectful ways toward others. I have younger children, and one example of how I try to do this is by teaching them to respect others’ rights to make decisions about their bodies. For example, if we are playing a tickling game and someone says, “Stop!” I tell them “Stop means stop.” It is my hope that this will plant a seed for when they are older and navigating physical contact in their dating relationships.

l Third, adults can educate themselves to understand the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy dating relationships. It isn’t necessary to become an expert, but when adults possess this knowledge, they are better prepared to recognize if they know someone who is at risk. Some valuable resources for learning more about teen dating violence include the Centers for Disease Control’s Teen Dating Violence Resource, Loveisrespect.org, and Break the Cycle.

l Fourth, although it is an uncomfortable subject, adults can open an ongoing dialogue about teen dating violence with the young people in their lives. Youth are more likely to share their experiences with adults when they view those adults as supportive, nonjudgmental and validating. Some topics for beginning these conversations include what they’ve noticed about their peers’ dating relationships, how much they know already about teen dating violence, and what characteristics they think are part of healthy relationships.

l Fifth, adults can learn about the resources available in our community to help young people who experience teen dating violence. For example, Family Service of the Piedmont offers a 24-hour crisis line (273-7273). In addition, the Greensboro Police Department’s Family Violence Unit (373-2331) is prepared to provide criminal justice resources.

l Finally, please plan to attend and bring your teens to the No Hatin’ ’n Datin’ event, Thursday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. at Weaver Academy. There will be special programming for teens, with a separate educational opportunity for parents. The theme is “The Message in the Music,” and the focus will be helping teens think critically about how music can influence their relationships.

As a parent, I know the urge to protect our children from the dangers of this world, and of course we can’t protect them from every possible challenge in life. However, we can help them navigate these challenges by providing them with support, knowledge, and resources throughout their lives.

Christine E. Murray, Ph.D., LPC, LMFT, is an associate professor in the UNCG Department of Counseling and Educational Development and is the director of the Program to Advance Community Responses to Violence Against Women in the UNCG Center for Women’s Health and Wellness. She also coordinates the Violence Prevention Network for Guilford County.

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