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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Domestic violence in teens mirrors abuse in adults

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The United States government estimates 1 in 3 high school students will experience dating abuse. Domestic violence, an epidemic that was mostly looked at in adult relationships, is creeping into the lives of youth across the country. It’s estimated that 25 percent of high school girls have been abused physically or sexually, making them six times more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant. 

While there is no formula to predict what causes teenagers to become abusive to their dating partners, Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams, a prevention specialist for Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the behavior is often learned.

“It’s true, people who are around a lot of violence, whether in person or seeing it in media, are at an increased risk for perpetration,” she explained. “However, it’s not destiny. The more a person is exposed to it, the more likely they are to use those tactics to solve their own problems.” 

Perpetrators do not look or act one certain way, neither do survivors. Shawnta Beverly, the mission impact director at Coburn Place, a transitional house in Marion County, said her organization serves men and women of all ages, races, socioeconomics statuses and sexual orientations. While Coburn Place does not house people under the age of 18, they do have a variety of therapy programs and support groups for children and adolescents who have been affected by domestic violence.

“We spend a lot of time educating young people about healthy relationships, how to protect their bodies, grooming and personal space,” Beverly said. “Many times, the children have been abused as well, it just doesn’t come out until therapy begins.”

While education is an important part of breaking the cycle of abuse in youth and adults, creating safe, stable and nurturing environments for communities where this type of violence is high could have an impact on statistics, Thomas-Williams said. 

“We want to change the environments to make the desired behavior the easy behavior,” Thomas-Williams said. “So, in order to do this, we need to address the motivation behind negative behaviors and usually that’s an environment.” 

Thomas-Williams said the modelling behavior that’s being shown to young people can greatly impact how they react in the future. So, if a teenager is living in a neighborhood where kindness and manners don’t get them what they need — food, shelter, etc.— they won’t be inclined to showcase those characteristics in places where they are expected, like school. In addition, access to food, education and money are also underlying issues for both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. 

Despite the age difference, domestic violence looks similar in teens and adults. An abusive partner will try and control how much the significant other sees family and friends, threaten to embarrass the partner on social media, control all the money coming in and even get physical. Beverly said it’s important for young people to understand a partner doesn’t have to hit to be abusive. Any type of controlling behavior is concerning. 

“Abuse isn’t just physical, it’s emotional, psychological, it’s many things,” she said. “It’s about power and control, forcing someone to have sex, taking their paycheck, calling them names, it breaks down their self-esteem, and they think they’re nothing because their abuser has called them ugly for a decade, so they internalize it.”

For teens looking to get out of an abusive relationship, Thomas-Williams said it’s imperative to have a safety plan, a safe location where they can stay, access to their school ID or driver’s license and any necessary medication. She also encourages adolescents to tell a trusted adult, or at least a friend who can then tell an adult he or she trusts. Lastly, it’s important for trusted adults and friends to support the victim with no strings attached.

“Let the person who has been harmed make all the important decisions,” Thomas-Williams said. “Advice is nice, but in a crisis, support is most important. Victims have to be able to make decisions for themselves.”  


Brittany King is a freelance writer.


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