22 January 2004

First love, first fear

Young love can hurt, as a number of studies over the past decade have shown that one teen out of three will be caught up in an abusive dating relationship.

It was a stupid teenage argument, the kind that happens between boyfriends and girlfriends all the time. But this time it turned brutal.

"I slapped him across the face because I was so angry," Rosalind Wiseman remembers.

"He threw me against the wall and choked me and said, 'If you ever, ever touch me again, I'm going to kill you.' I said to myself, 'OK, that's it, he's going to kill me. I'm going to do what he says.'"

That was Wiseman's first love.

Today, as executive director of the Washington, DC-based Empower Programme, she helps counsel teens about the dangers of dating violence, techniques to prevent it and ways to escape abusive relationships.

"Abusers are very, very good at what they do," Wiseman, 31, explains. "They know how to create a world where you'll stay ... He can be horrible, but there's a time when he makes you feel like the most special person in the whole world."

Wiseman met her first love and soon-to-be abuser when she was 14, on her first day of high school.

He was handsome, charming and wealthy, she recalls, and they became one of the school's "perfect couples," two people whose names were always mentioned in tandem. What no one guessed was that by the end of Wiseman's sophomore year, the "dream relationship" included verbal, psychological and physical abuse, she says.

Even after he kicked her in the face, Wiseman stayed with her boyfriend all through high school before she finally ended the relationship during her sophomore year of college.

"It sounds superficial, but social status in high school is one of the most important things for teens," she says. "I thought if I stopped dating him, my life would be over."

"I had no prior experience in how to go through something like this," she adds, explaining why she put up with the abuse for so long. "When you're a teen, these things are a big deal. Remember what it's like to be in love for the first time. Where do you have the experience to say, 'This isn't good for me, I need to get out.' "

Studies document the violence

Young love can hurt, and don't just take Wiseman's word for it. A number of studies over the past decade have consistently shown that one teen out of three will be caught up in an abusive dating relationship.

It's a finding that has prompted many middle schools to develop prevention curricula. But experts are recommending that prevention programmes now start as early as fourth grade because kids are dating in middle school so they need the information ahead of time.

Paul Schewe is project evaluator for Southside Teens About Respect (STAR), a teen dating violence prevention programme in Chicago that is funded by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal agency. A programme survey found that more than 90 percent of the middle school students interviewed were already dating.

"The biggest surprise was the high rate of violence in these kids' relationships at a very young age," Schewe says. "In seventh and eighth grade, 22 percent had been victims and 37 percent had been perpetrators."

Perhaps even more tragic than the number of teens who have been trapped in an abusive relationship are the adolescents who don't break up with their abusers, Schewe adds.

There are a number of reasons why the teens don't just walk away, he says.

"They're young, they're infatuated, they may have no models of what a healthy relationship really is, or [they feel] that's 'just the way it is,' " he says. "And you're in love. You do anything for love."

Even when their lives may be in danger, teens rarely share their secrets. Experts cite a host of fears that keep kids locked in silence.

"Reasons include not wanting to lose their boyfriend or girlfriend, not wanting to tell their parents who might take away their freedom, fear of being ostracised by certain groups, especially if the boy is popular, and not being believed," notes Elizabeth K Carll, a clinical psychologist and author of Violence in Our Lives: Impact on Workplace, Home and Community.

"And they're hoping things will get better," Carll adds. "Usually, after a violent episode, the abuser tends to be sorry and wants to make up, so there is a time when things are very good."

Learning how to 'date and dump'

Wiseman's program focuses on strategies to identify, overcome or avoid abusive relationships.

In sessions separated by gender, boys are taught about the destructive force of verbal abuse and appropriate ways to handle rejection. Girls learn about the danger of cliques and spreading gossip, the heavy emphasis society places on physical beauty, and self-defence strategies for the physically threatening situations they could experience.

In addition, Wiseman says, both boys and girls learn how to "date and dump," which stresses a person's right to end a relationship.

Dr Alvin F Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, sees another formidable tool in the fight against teen dating violence: parents.

"We still see movies where women are slapped around. There should be lots of occasions and opportunities for parents to communicate with their kids without sitting down and giving a lecture,” Poussaint says. “They can talk about movies and depictions of violence, and what they think of that. Then they can ask if they've seen anything like that happen at school."

Wiseman says her breakthrough came during a family vacation. Her parents had noticed for some time that something was wrong, she recalls, but when they'd try to find out, she would invariably shut them off.

"By the time I was 18, I was so distant, I never came out of my room," she adds.

"I remember being in a car on vacation and my mother said, 'I don't know what's going on, but you can make mistakes. No decision is permanent. If you want to talk to me, here I am,' " she says.

"It was a little window - but it was enough to make me think there was hope," Wiseman says. "It was one of the most important things that was said to me that enabled me to stop the relationship."

What To Do

While teens in abusive relationships will rarely discuss it, here are some of the warning signs parents can look for:

  • The relationship becomes intense very quickly;
  • She stops spending time with her friends;
  • She drops out of her favorite activities, leaving her with only one identity - being a girlfriend;
  • She makes apologies for her boyfriend's behaviour;
  • He calls excessively to check on her;
  • She seems extremely nervous and has difficulty making decisions;
  • She has unexplained bruises;
  • Her school performance suffers, with no explanation;
  • She seems depressed and isolates herself from her family.



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