Things began to unravel with a hard shove in the middle of a fast food restaurant.
“I was making a little joke about how he always seemed to order the exact same thing,” says Serenity Wyatt of Gaithersburg, Md. “He seemed cool with it but when other people started laughing, he turned and pushed me so hard that I slid across the floor. Everyone just stood there like they were in shock while he walked out and just left me there. I was too embarrassed to call my parents, so I walked the two or three miles home alone.”
Still, she kept seeing her 16-year-old beau, even as the violence escalated.
Only 17 at the time, Wyatt would later realize that the patterns of teen dating violence had been present very early on in their 10-month relationship. “He was my first boyfriend, so I thought that was just the way things were when a guy really loves you. I didn’t know any better.” There was the constant checking of her cell phone, talking down to her and even insisting that she not go anywhere without his prior approval. By the time all was said and done, Wyatt would require medical treatment and months of counseling while her boyfriend faced assault charges. “I was done,” Wyatt says, “almost as much with myself for letting it happen as I was with him.”
Wyatt’s case of teen dating violence is one of too many. Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate domestic violence at almost three times the national average. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.4 percent of high school students reported being intentionally hurt physically within the previous year at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Roughly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men who have ever experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner had their first experience between ages 11 and 17.
“Serenity is my third child and only daughter,” says her mother, Deborah Smalls. “I assumed I was very attentive with her but the first time I knew anything was going terribly wrong was when she ended up in the ER with a fractured eye socket. My first thoughts were, ‘Oh, my God. How could I not see this coming?’”
As parents, the first step in preventing your teen from becoming a victim of intimate partner abuse is recognizing the early warning signs, before the situation worsens. For Smalls, the realization that there were signs that her child was in danger long before she was seriously injured was a wake-up call. “Here I was just thinking that these were just kids, but I was allowing my daughter to continue a situation that, as an adult, I would have walked away from,” she recalls. “I was devastated and angry but determined to make sure my daughter never found herself in this kind of (situation) again.”
Now a 20-year-old college student, Wyatt recalls that time with a mix of sadness, regret and, surprisingly, strength. “I learned the hard way that just because someone says they love you, it doesn’t mean that they do. If you have to take someone putting you down or putting their hands on you to be in a relationship, that’s just not the relationship for you. Now, if I’m seeing somebody and he starts trying to control me, I’m smart and strong enough to say, ‘I’m out of here.’”
The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence offers these signs that your teen could be involved in an abusive relationship. Parents should be concerned if your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend:
- Is excessively jealous
- Constantly checks in with your child or requires your child to check in with him or her
- Attempts to isolate your teen from family and friends
- Becomes too serious about the relationship too quickly
- Exhibits controlling behavior, including giving orders, telling your teen what to wear and trying to make decisions for your teen
- Blames your teen when he or she treats them badly
- Has an explosive temper
- Believes strongly in stereotypical gender roles
- Owns or uses weapons
- Refuses to let your child end the relationship
If you notice any of these behaviors in your child’s relationship, trust your intuition. Research shows that the actions of those who commit dating violence tend to escalate over time, so acting now could be a matter of life and death. Start by talking with your child about your concerns, keeping the focus on your need to guarantee their well-being. If you think your child will need help ending the relationship because of safety concerns, alert your local law enforcement of the situation. And don’t be afraid to seek counseling for yourself or your child to help you overcome any emotional or psychological damage that might have been done. Smalls did both of these for her daughter and says that it was the best thing she could have done to help protect and heal her daughter.
“We all say ‘I’d walk through fire for my child,’” she says. “But first, we have to see the smoke.”
For help dealing with dating violence against your teen, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE.