By Liz Bergren
Entering a romantic relationship for the first time is an adolescent rite of passage. We get thrown into the complexities of what it means to love and be loved, touched, and potentially hurt and/or rejected. Our early romantic relationships can help shape and influence the success of our relationships in adulthood. As we learn to relate to others, we learn skills such as self-awareness, communication, conflict resolution, and intimacy. Healthy relationships can teach us positive lessons and bring us opportunities for personal growth. Sometimes a teen’s desire to be in a relationship blinds him or her to unhealthy behavior—both his or her own and/or that of the other person—and this can sometimes lead to abuse. As someone who works with teens, I know firsthand that early intervention by adults plays a crucial role in preventing potential long-term physical or emotional damage.
It is important to acknowledge some common facts about abusers and victims.
- Abusers and victims can be anyone. An abuser can be someone of any race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, or gender. So can a victim. It is typical to assume that an abuser is most often a male and the abuse exists primarily in heterosexual relationships, but that is not necessarily the case. It is important not to assume which person is the abuser or the victim based on appearance, gender, or cultural norms.
- An abuser can be a very loving person and, in turn, be very lovable. It is relatively common for an abuser to feel remorse and do things such as buy gifts or romance another person. The origins of abusive behavior are often complex, and it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reason the abusive behavior started or if it can be changed. Even when abusers are made aware of their behavior and they attempt to change, they often return to the abuse, even after repeated apologies and promises to never do it again. The redeeming qualities of an abuser (affectionate, kind, charismatic) often make it difficult for the partner to leave the relationship, because he or she may believe that the behaviors can change over time.
- Abuse is not always visible. As a former teacher, I have worked with students who have been in unhealthy relationships. It is important to note that physical abuse is not always visible from the outside and that abuse comes in many forms, not just physical. Abusers who use physical violence will often injure their victims in places that can be hidden. I knew of a student whose abuser would pull her hair on the back of her neck where it was very hard to see the evidence. I knew another student who was repeatedly shoved against the passenger door of the car. The only evidence of abuse was recurring earring infections from when her piercings hit the door. Those infections could be easily overlooked or blamed on poor hygiene.
An adolescent is most likely to report abuse to a peer, not to an adult. It is important for adults who work with teens to educate themselves on how students’ lives outside of school might interfere with their school lives. In some cases, the abuse is happening during the school day. The symptoms of an unhealthy relationship listed below can be mistaken for signs of standard teen growing pains. This is why it’s difficult for school personnel to confirm whether symptoms are signaling abuse. Spotting someone who is being abused requires keen observation.
An adolescent who is in an abusive dating relationship may display the following symptoms:
- A general change in affect or behavior. A student who is being abused can become withdrawn, fearful, or angry. Such students might lose interest in normal activities, act out, lose weight, or change how they dress.
- A change in social life or friend group. When I was a teacher, I paid close attention to students in the hallways, and I would often stand outside my door to greet students as they came into my class. I was always on the lookout for any interactions that would warrant intervention. Notice if a student’s partner is often waiting for him or her after class, or if the partner comes up in conversation more than is normal. Do you see public displays of affection in the hall? Do they seem aggressive or unwanted? Digital abuse may show itself in repeated texting, perhaps hundreds of texts a day. Is a student excessively using his or her phone? Does the student show changes in body language when around his or her partner? A student may have had an active social life prior to the relationship. If there is a noticeable change of friends or the number of friends, that may be a red flag. Watch for patterns of behavior that exist in a social group. Do members isolate? Do they exclude others from their group? Are they secretive?
- A drop in grades or general change in classroom demeanor. When stress is high or students’ safety needs aren’t being met, it is almost impossible for them to maintain grades or a positive attitude in school. Were they active participants in class, but now are not? Did they consistently turn in their work, but now do not? Were they on time and present in class, but now are late and/or absent? It can be difficult to answer those questions because of the natural volatility that sometimes comes with adolescence. Again, many different things can cause changes in school attitude. If a romantic partner has become a priority in this student’s life, it may be appropriate to consider how the relationship is impacting his or her school performance.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse can be a common coping strategy used by teens who are struggling. When things are out of control, teens often find a means to numb their emotional pain. It can be hard for teachers and other adults in teens’ lives to know if drugs or alcohol are being abused because the symptoms or behaviors can be confused with other things. Watch for signs of drug abuse in their eyes and their affect in the classroom.
It is appropriate and sometimes necessary for teachers or other school personnel to inquire about students’ well-being, especially if there is behavior that is out of the norm. If you notice any changes that are concerning or are negatively affecting a student’s academic performance, approach the student and share your observations. Be warm, empathic, and demonstrate genuine concern. If students trust you, they might open up and share what is happening. At times, they might be so afraid of backlash from their partner that they will refuse to share. Be sure to contact parents and/or a school administrator with your concerns.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence is an excellent resource for more information on adolescent dating violence.