How to save your kids from future abusive relationships
The young man is so attentive that his young partner blushes, equal parts embarrassed and pleased that he wants her to himself. "He's jealous," she giggles to a friend as they watch him glower at the boy she's been teamed with in 10th-grade science class.
His behavior will later be less adorable when he fusses if she wants to spend time with family or friends, or when she wants a burger but he wants her to have a salad.
Playing keep-away with her phone because she's ignoring him will be another step in a journey that moves from "playful" pinching if she doesn't do what he wants to twisting her arm or slapping her. He'll apologize and say he was joking. Later, she may not dare challenge him.
Domestic violence experts who describe scenes like this say the progression is predictable. The girl this young man claims to love should have already laced up her sneakers to run for her life, they say.
The number of abused women in the U.S. is startling: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence during their lives. An estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by an intimate partner each year.
Just how young partner violence starts, though, is shocking. One in 10 high school students surveyed said their boyfriend or girlfriend deliberately hurt them physically in the past year. And 14 percent of male and 20 percent of female abuse victims first experienced partner violence between ages 11 and 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Partner violence often begins in middle or high school. It's a problem so great that the CDC has given researchers at Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University a large grant to see if they can determine why some kids are in violent relationships and others manage to avoid them — and what can be changed to prevent such abuse.
Patricia Baronowski can come up with 25 signs of domestic violence without thinking too hard about it, because she experienced many of them. The New Yorker rattles them off: "When your partner wants to consume all of your time. When your partner starts to ... " Her list includes controlling access to transportation and money; ruining a partner's things; demeaning the partner; and questioning the propriety of friendships. She describes "acting one way in front of people and another when you are alone."
The threats Baronowski endured included harm to people, pets and kids she loved. Her abuser monitored where she was and recruited others to check on her. The final item? "When your partner tries to make you believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated."
It may start young, but "the challenge is that in young love, much is tolerated and less is reported," said David Simonsen, a family counselor in the Seattle area. The hardest thing to do, he added, is get the perpetrator to see the behavior as problematic.
The tendency is to give second — and fifth and 15th — chances.
"When women fight abusers over these behaviors, but repeatedly forgive them and give into demands, they teach the abuser that they are breaking down and releasing their own power," said Jennifer Kalita, a women's advocate in Washington, D.C. "By the time the first beating occurs, the victim is so deeply embedded in the controlling relationship that it's difficult to break free."
Alisa Ruby Bash, a marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills, California, said sexual orientation, religion, race, gender, ethnic backgrounds and occupations have nothing to do with whether one is abused. Most abusers are male, so experts tend to use "he" when talking about partner violence. It's not a failure to recognize it can cut both ways. It's just demographic likelihood.
Fast, raging anger — whether road rage or fury because a favorite sports team lost — is cause for grave concern, said Ramani Durvasula, Los Angeles-area psychologist and professor at Cal State University, Los Angeles. One need not be hit to be endangered by physical aggression: tantrums, throwing things, punching walls or breaking objects, she warned.
Name calling and insults are unacceptable, but many people put up with them. Often, they are prelude to ramped-up anger and violence.
"If he insults you early on, get out," she said. "If alcohol and drug use results in behavior change, get out. If you are worried or uncomfortable, get out."
It may seem harsh to stop dating someone who on a second date shouts obscenities and cuts off drivers. She said to do just that — before you're more entangled.
"There are men out there who get into relationships with women who throw stuff and scream in public. Gentlemen, get out," said Durvasula.
"This is as good as it gets," she said. "This early, he should be trying to win your over. ... When you rewind the clock and talk to victims of intimate partner violence, they knew by the third date something was wrong. This only happens late if there's brain damage or an injury causing it. So get out, block their phone number, boot them from your social media. The angry, violent guy can be very sticky. Make it about you: I am not ready. I am too involved in work. I have to study."
She and other experts say sexual intimacy can increase the sense of entitlement or ownership.
A particular challenge with adolescents is that they're not always checked on their behavior by anyone: "Adolescence is a time of uniform narcissism, and it's developmentally appropriate," Durvasula said.
That doesn't mean adults can't curb it. Parents should listen to their children interact, model good behavior, and make certain children know parents will be a "safe zone."
One woman, who asked not to be named, said she didn't recognize she was being abused at first because she believed she was too smart to fall prey: "You don't realize how easily some people manipulate and control others emotionally," she said.
Her husband had a public and a private face. He'd been abused as a child, she said, and carried great anger he eventually unleashed at her. The pattern of domestic violence in their relationship was typical. They visited his family, but not hers. She changed her behavior to avoid outbursts. Early on, he'd apologize, she'd forgive and it would start again, but escalate.
Kalita believes that to avoid situations like this, prevention must start early.
"When they're little, parents can begin with expressions like, 'We don't solve our problems with our hands or our feet, and it's not safe to play with people who do,'" she said.
Parents should help children build "extreme self-esteem." Kids who see themselves as capable and loved more often avoid abuse.
Conversations with children about bullies and bossy friends can reinforce the idea that people don't get to control others. Kalita told her daughters, "I treat people nicely and I like people who do the same, so those are the ones I hang out with. Folks who treat themselves and other people badly can hang out with each other."
By middle school, parents and kids should be discussing "ways to take care of your body and mind," including protecting oneself physically — an opener for discussing how controlling friends and dates can be dangerous.
Parents should try to be aware of friends' and romantic interests' home lives, challenges, extracurricular activities and behavior problems so they can talk with their children about who they allow in their inner circle, she said.
Home life is often linked to abusive behavior, and many abusers were themselves abused. Durvasula said partner violence often stems from poor ability to regulate emotions. Some abusers are sociopaths, narcissists or substance abusers.
Be warned: "Parents who forbid their kids to see any individual may as well cover that person in chocolate. The key is not to prevent your child from accessing a person of interest, but to teach your child how to be more discerning in his or her choices," said Kalita.
"Youths are developing their identity in puberty and are most vulnerable to wanting attention but not understanding how to use sexuality appropriately," said Diane Dennis, a Portland, Oregon, writer certified to work with domestic violence victims. "In puberty, they want to be accepted. It's easy to slip into the sexual identity presented by popular media, which is a set-up for violence."
Kids need media literacy, Dennis noted. Adults can help them take apart the messages they encounter. They also need to learn emotional intelligence to see when a peer is using sexuality, power and control — all red flags.
Boys must learn boundaries about touching and aggression, that sexuality is sacred and not something to be taken. Attention — even dangerous attention — is like a drug to an insecure girl who lacks role models, particularly a father, to teach her to protect and value herself, Dennis said.
Men and women should proceed slowly when dating, Bash counseled. Even when people are on their best behavior, warning signs may appear, such as demeaning a waiter. Eventually, that wrath may be directed at a significant other.
"I think once you see any type of warning sign, cut it off and don't give second chances, especially if it was physical," she said. "Emotional is harder to detect, but if you feel belittled or disrespected, know the great likelihood is it will keep happening."
Someone who feels stalked or harassed must call police, Bash said.
Most violence is learned — and it can be unlearned, said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence.
"We need to talk to kids early on about what it means to have a healthy relationships — and give them the tools to do that. I think most violence can be prevented," she said.
Relationships involve conflict, but the trick is resolving it in a respectful, nonviolent way. A person can be angry with someone at times, and never be abusive, Soler said. But a person can't change someone else, she emphasized.
"We all try in relationships and it just doesn't work," she said. "So if you feel in danger, the only solution is to leave that situation."
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