One of the challenges in dealing with domestic or intimate partner violence versus dating violence versus elder abuse versus assault is the preconceived notions of what each of those mean. Domestic violence – well that seems to mean husband / wife / partner – adults who live together. Elder abuse, well, that’s someone beating up a senior person. Dating violence, well, boyfriend and girlfriend (or boyfriend and boyfriend or girlfriend and girlfriend got in a fight). But when you really break it down and look at the patterns in the relationships (control, manipulation, intimidation, threats, humiliation, harm) there are only degrees of differences from one to the other. Each is a form of relationship violence. Each follows similar (if not the same) cycles of abuse.
There are times when we, as an organization, struggle with incidences involving dating violence and the sometimes lack of ability to see the bigger picture. It’s easy for people to dismiss teenagers and their relationships, almost like it’s to be expected or someone will grow out of it or somehow it doesn’t mean the same thing because the couple are in their teens versus in their 20s. That doesn’t make sense to me.
It’s common to hear a variety of messages given to teenaged victims ranging from “he only acts like that because he loves you”, “well, did you flirt with Joey in the hallway?” to “if you don’t like it, break up with him” and “maybe you should get counseling for your (victim’s) anger problems”. These messages are from folks that are supposed to be helping and they are messages they would not give to an adult female.
Being a teenager does not make it any less serious. In fact, an adolescent’s reduced ability to see the long-term consequences of their actions and the sometimes reduced ability to control their behavior actually increases the risk of serious harm.
Similar to how many adult women have to flee to a shelter, give up everything and start over to keep themselves safe; many teenaged victims of dating violence drop out of school to try to get away. Why? Because they are faced with seeing their abuser, the one that threatens them, the one whose friends threaten and intimidate them, every single day – all day. As teenagers, they need help and support to keep themselves safe. As a culture – as adults, we typically are a massive fail when it comes to ensuring that happens.
If we really want to make a difference in the war against domestic violence, we have to do a better job of dealing with our teenaged dating violence victims and perpetrators. It’s not going to go away on its own. It’s not going to magically get better on its own. We have to do a better job of teaching our kids, keeping them safe, and holding them accountable when it comes to relationships. Until then, we’re trying to fix these problems after the fact instead of preventing them from happening in the first place.