While lots of people think of February as full of hearts and love, February is also a time that calls attention to the darker side of relationships. It’s National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
1 in 3 high school students experiences some kind of dating violence in their relationships. Yet, 81% of parents believe that teen dating violence is not an issue or they admit that they don’t know if it’s a problem.
(Stats are courtesy of Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit focused on teen dating violence.)
My own experiences as a teen mean that it’s on the top of my list of concerns for teens. When I was a teenager, I’d heard lots of people joke about stalking, and I’d heard about it as something that happened to famous people. But stalking didn’t feel like a real or serious concept for me. Then, all of a sudden, it became very serious and very real. Starting when I was 15, and on and off throughout my high school and college years, I was stalked by a boy that I had briefly dated for about three months.
When I was a new driver at 16, I’d see his car in my rear view mirror 30 miles from home and wonder how long he’d been following me. When school got out, he’d be in the woods outside my high school parking lot, watching me. In college, he’d call my dorm room over and over again. He’d wait by my car in the parking lot outside my dorm at random times. Sometimes, he’d just show up outside my dorm room. I even came home from class to find him in my room once. My roommate had let him in, not knowing our history. I’d never told him where I was living at college or what my number was. Unfortunately for me, he was good at finding me, on campus or anywhere else.
I was lucky, though. The stalking never escalated to physical violence with me. However, my stalker was violent toward himself. He hurt himself when I broke up with him and at other times when I rejected his advances throughout the following years.
I was afraid to cut ties with him, because I was afraid he would cut himself. I’d seen the deep wounds he gave himself after our fights. And I was afraid he’d do a lot worse than that.
Within a few days after I broke up with him, he checked into the local hospital and was on suicide watch for a couple of weeks. Though I knew talking with him after that wasn’t healthy for me, I worried that the alternative was that a person I cared about might try to end his own life. For me, that was a heavy emotional burden to bear. As an emotionally mature adult, I feel like this would be tough to handle. At 15, it felt overwhelming.
But, I was lucky in another way, too. I had really great family and friends looking out for me. I was able to talk with them about what was going on. And they were able to help make me feel safe. When he was lurking in the woods, watching my car, friends would walk me to my car. Sometimes a friend would follow me home or ride with me to make sure I got there safely.
One memorable night, my dad and a close friend both went above and beyond for me. My parents were out of town and a friend in her early 20s was staying with me. My stalker showed up at my home in the night. He was angry and scary. Banging on my locked back door. Yelling at me to let him in. The friend staying with me was amazing, protecting me, helping me feel safe. And after a middle of the night phone call, my dad left his beach vacation and drove six hours through the night to get home, be with me, and make sure I was safe.
In retrospect, maybe we should have looked into how to get a restraining or protection order. But I was 15. I didn’t know anything about that and I don’t think my parents did either.
As moms, I hope that our kids’ teen dating experiences are better than mine. I hope that they never experience any kind of abuse in the rocky world of teen dating. But if things don’t go how we’d like them to, if any of us have a teen in an unhealthy relationship, I hope that we can all be as supportive, protective, and awesome as my parents and friends were.
There are three things I think we should be ready to do.
3 Ways to Be Smart About Teen Dating Violence
1. Recognize what abuse and dating violence looks like.
2. Talk with your kids.
Help them understand what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. Make sure that your kids feel like the lines of communication are wide open and they can talk to you if they have a problem. If you’re not sure how to start a conversation like that with your teen, Break the Cycle has created a great guide for parents.
3. Know what resources are available to help.
If you or your teen needs help or wants to learn more, here are a few local and national resources:
• United Action for Youth in Iowa City offers counseling about healthy relationships for teens. Your teen can reach on-call counselors from UAY at 319-338-7518.
• Teens and parents can get help from Iowa City’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program, which provides free help for victims of abuse.
• When teens need help, they can reach out to peer advocates for one-on-one support by texting “loveis” to 22522 or calling 1-866-331-9474.
• You can find more resources from Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit organization focused on teen dating violence.