The conversation we need to be having with our teens (and no, it’s not about sex)

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Why is it that the dating violence young people experience remains a silent epidemic? The uncomfortable truth is that teens are one of our most vulnerable groups and yet very few of those experiencing abuse feel equipped to seek help.

The statistics are the stuff of nightmares for many parents who may well be clueless to the fact their child is even dating, nevertheless in a toxic partnership. While 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, 20 per cent of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

Alarmingly, Australian research indicates that young women aged 14-19 may be up to four times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than older women.
For teens experiencing dating abuse, reporting this to a trusted adult is often particularly problematic. Many remain silent as they fear they will get in trouble from their parents for dating in the first place.

Others keep quiet knowing they will have to face the perpetrator everyday at school, or for fear they will be asked to change schools to avoid their ex.

Some fear being alienated by their peer group if they speak up while others don’t yet have the language to even identify the behaviour as domestic violence and simply don’t know how to describe what is happening to them.

Donna Cavanagh, the Shelter Manager at Women’s Community Shelter’s Sanctuary refuge in the Hills area of North West Sydney, was deeply saddened, yet not surprised when the first woman to seek shelter there was just 17 years old (she arrived with a seven week old baby).

“Most of the women who come to use for shelter aren’t adolescents. But that’s because teens are usually still at home and may be housed with their parents.” The older women she does see, however, often report that in hindsight, they can see their boyfriends when they were younger were abusive too. Cavanagh explains, “I’d say almost all the women we work with report that the first abusive relationship they had was when they were in high school. Their boyfriend at the time may have told them what they could and couldn’t wear, who they were allowed to speak to… perhaps even shoved them during an argument. So that type of behaviour becomes normalised. Control becomes falsely equated with love.”

The research confirms that rather than being mere puppy love, teen relationships are in fact foundational and do set the tone for future partnerships.

We need to urgently implement a more targeted approach to raise awareness about domestic violence in teens, and aim to bring about generational change.

How can we sow the seeds of change in our high schools and home?

1. There needs to be a zero tolerance policy for misogyny in our playgrounds and classrooms. Too often, sexist slurs aren’t taken seriously enough which normalises verbal abuse.

2. We need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on helping them unpack myths around masculinity that do not serve them — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

3. We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. She’s right, it isn’t fair.

4. We need more teen-friendly (i.e. realistic and non-judgemental) resources in both our homes and schools that explain what a respectful relationship looks and feels like. In the guide to teen girls on dating and relationships I cowrote with Nina Funnel, Loveability, Funnell and I offered warm, shame-free advice on everything from dealing with crushes, to developing one’s own deal makers (values and behaviours that make for a good relationship) and deal breakers (identifying the signs of an unhealthy relationship).

5. Schools can seek our service learning opportunities for both genders that reduce the stigma surrounding domestic violence, and provide an opportunity for deeper, shared understandings.

Women’s Community Shelters Walk The Talk program offers just this opportunity. In phase one, my Enlighten Education (www.enlighteneducation.com) team speak with high school students about respectful relationships, teach them conflict resolution skills, and inspire them to be change makers. No lecturing. No scaremongering. Rather, it’s a strength-focused, inclusive program for both genders filled with laughter and connection.

The initial education component is then followed up with phase two; an opportunity for students to practically apply their learning. They are invited to adopt their local Women’s Community Shelter refuge.

Young people will support the work of these shelters through helping with fund-raising, assisting with raising community awareness, and volunteering at key events.

And finally, parents and educators must realise that discussions around relationship violence are not theoretical for some young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

Author – Dannielle Miller. Miller is an author, teen educator and Women’s Community Shelter’s Education officer.