When counselors began teaching teens several years ago how to avoid future domestic violence, they had a rude awakening. They were too late.
Many of the high school students were already involved in abusive relationships, but they hadn't been coming forward out of confusion or fear. The outreach coordinators from battered women's programs quickly changed tactics, focusing on raising awareness and spurring research.
"We're in the schools and we're finding out that we don't have to wait," says Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women.
At a time when the art of steering a child safely through adolescence means parents must be savvy about the signs of drug use and eating disorders, psychologists are raising another red flag: dating violence. Recent research shows that one-third of all teenage relationships include emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Peer pressure, the media, and teen inexperience with dating are to blame, experts say.
Luz Troche can attest to the problem. Sitting in a cafeteria at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass., the high school student explains that she has already struggled with an abusive boyfriend. "He was too possessive. I had to leave him."
The fact that teens are incorporating violence into their early relationships is hard for many adults - and especially parents - to believe, says Ms. Giggans, who is also co-author of "What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence" (Seal Press).
"Folks are just beginning to start talking about this stuff," she says. "We don't teach our teens how to have good relationships. This is a big arena that's up for big discussion, and we're not having enough of it."
A dim future
The impact of teen dating violence looms large for society. In addition to concerns about a victim's mental and physical well-being and the cost of rehabilitating or incarcerating abusers, a community loses a valuable future teacher or accountant or lawyer if the victim drops out of school. If an abused teen is pregnant, she is more likely to expose her child to violence, extending the chain of abuse.
"This has wide ramifications," says David Sugarman, a psychology professor at Rhode Island College in Providence.
Peer pressure - so intense during adolescence - is one of the factors most to blame. Boys, who most often are the abusers, find others sanctioning violence. Aggressive behavior is rewarded on the playing field. Boys are seen as "macho" or "cool" to their male friends if they have a girlfriend and can control her, Professor Sugarman says.
For teenage girls, there is pressure to be in a relationship, regardless of how damaging it may be. Cutting ties to a popular boy can be extremely difficult, Sugarman says. A girl's friends may even reinforce the idea that it's okay for her boyfriend to hit her.
A teen's dating inexperience also contributes to unhealthy relationships. It can make a girl misread what older women would more easily identify as emotional or physical control. She may see her boyfriend's controlling behavior as normal, or even a sign of attentiveness.
Finding the exit
"I think it's even harder for teens to get out of an abusive relationship [than adult women]," says Barri Rosenbluth, head of the Austin Teen Dating Violence Project at the Center for Battered Women in Austin, Texas. "They don't have anything to compare it to. What I see so often is that they're trying so hard to prove to their parents that they can be independent and they have good judgment."
Women are particularly susceptible during their teen years, when they stop thinking of their own growth. They start focusing on how to win boys' approval, says Joan Quinlan, project officer for Girl Power, a new program of the US Department of Health and Human Services that seek to prevent girls from becoming involved in drug use, crime, and sexual activity.
Between ages 9 and 14, girls are often encouraged, either by parents or peers, to stop the activities they once excelled in, such as sports or music, Ms. Quinlan says. Often they get the message that looks are what count.
"During that time period is when the confidence and pride that girls had when they were younger is either strengthened or weakened or becomes nonexistent," she says.
As awareness grows, women's shelters, district attorneys' offices, schools, and state legislatures have begun to focus on the problem of dating violence - though it still does not receive the attention that domestic violence, juvenile crime, or even date rape does.
Curricula are being developed for the nation's classrooms. Advocates are pushing for more evaluation of the programs in place. Scholars are researching the links between alcohol and drug abuse and dating violence.
A dramatic approach
One program offered in the Massachusetts schools is a play called "The Yellow Dress," sponsored by a group founded after the death of a woman in her 20s who was in an abusive relationship.
The drama tells the tale of a young woman who is killed by her boyfriend after more than a year of his controlling her and sometimes beating her violently. After the play, students break into groups to discuss how they can avoid dating violence and help friends and family members understand the phenomenon.
Luz, who saw the performance at her school last week, says the story rang true to her. When you're in an abusive relationship, she comments, "you can't go out with your friends; he won't let you. He will grab you and shake you."
More comprehensive programs have also been developed to address teen-dating violence across the country:
*The March of Dimes Prevention of Battery During Teen Pregnancy Project in the San Francisco Bay area focuses on violence against teens who are pregnant. Research shows that 1 in 5 pregnant teens is abused.
The March of Dimes has launched a public-information campaign, formed a coalition of government and service providers to keep pregnant teens from falling through the cracks, and opened one of the few teen shelters in the country that will take in a young woman and her child.
Pregnant teens who are abused often cannot go to shelters for teens or to those for battered women. The March of Dimes shelter, however, caters to pregnant teens' needs in its counseling groups, and offers such services as having program workers go to wherever a girl is staying and bring her to the shelter.
*Promoting Alternatives to Violence Through Education (PAVE) in Denver is a center that helps youths ages 8 to 18. They have developed a preventive curriculum taught in many of the area schools. Additionally, they offer counseling for victims of teen dating violence and rehabilitation for abusing teens. The program also hosts a family enrichment program that targets children who have witnessed domestic violence and offers them six free counseling sessions when their mother applies for a restraining order against her boyfriend or husband.
*Massachusetts has a unique program in which the state provides grants to school districts willing to develop a teen-dating violence prevention effort. The effort calls for schools to include the local police department, battered women's shelters, and parents in their planning. So far, 31 districts have signed on. In two years, the grant has funded the training of teachers and police officers and the adoption of teen-dating curricula in the schools. The money allows schools to bring performances like "The Yellow Dress" to campus.
Players on all sides of the issue say these types of model programs need to be duplicated so they can reach more teens. "Lately, there's been a real recognition of the issue of teen-dating violence," says Pam Ellis, of the Norfolk County, Mass., district attorney's office. "But I still don't think it's enough."
Researchers also say they are now pointing their programming in a new direction - less talk about single issues and more talk about how to create healthy relationships in general.
"I like to call it the back-door approach," says Girl Power's Quinlan, "addressing developmental issues rather than hitting kids over the head with a specific message or theme."