Magazine Feature

Possession Obsession

Almost one-third of teen relationships involve abuse. Help students learn to avoid—or break free from—unhealthy entanglements.
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Illustration by Valerie Downes

Lauren McBride grew up in suburban Milwaukee, the eldest of three kids of a teacher and a school social worker. They made lots of time for their children. The proverbial “good girl,” McBride says that more than anything she didn’t want to disappoint her parents.

She stumbled into a verbally abusive relationship her senior year of high school. It soon turned violent, but she used lots of makeup to cover the bruises and gave her parents plausible excuses for them.

McBride says she wanted to end the relationship, but the boy threatened to show her parents photos of her in underwear and let them know she’d “taken his virginity.” “I had this terrible fear of letting my parents down—it consumed me,” she recalls. Only a choking incident that felt truly life-threatening compelled the teenager to confide everything to her mom. And it took legal restraining orders to solve the abuse problem, says McBride, now 25.

McBride’s experience is far from rare. In one recent national survey of teenagers who had been in relationships, 29 percent reported experiencing sexual or physical abuse or receiving threats of physical violence from partners. About 10 percent of students in grades nine to 12 consistently say they’ve been physically hurt on purpose by a dating partner during the past year, according to the ongoing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) youth risk surveys.

Kids who witness violence between their parents are at higher-than-average risk to be the abusers—and the abused. Perhaps surprisingly, girls and boys are equally likely to turn violent with dating partners. But girls suffer more severe injuries, says health scientist Andra Tharp of the CDC. Teens who use alcohol or drugs and have trouble managing anger are especially likely to strike out against boyfriends or girlfriends. “But dating violence can affect anyone at any time,” she says. “Nobody is exempt.”

The barrage of digital media— texting, tweeting, instant-messaging, Facebook posting, Skyping—keeps kids on a shorter-than-ever leash to abusive partners. “It keeps them connected 24/7—and controlled,” says Tammy Hall, a recently retired West Chester, Ohio, health teacher who taught dating-abuse prevention.

With awareness growing on many campuses, 11 states since 2007 have passed laws mandating that schools teach teens about partner abuse or at least draw greater attention to the problem. The new laws and increasing availability of curricula have prompted a surge in prevention programs over the past few years, mostly at middle schools and for the youngest high school students.

More than 11,000 schools and agencies (such as the Girl Scouts) have requested the free Love Is Not Abuse curriculum online in the past five years, says a Liz Claiborne Inc. spokesperson. The clothing company partnered with the Education Development Center to create the four-lesson program.

Love Is Not Abuse uses poetry, short stories, videos and student journaling to spark awareness of the differences between healthy and abusive dating. Kids discuss their own experiences of abuse and brainstorm how to help friends who may be in trouble. “It’s very engaging,” says Erin O’Malley, director of guidance at Park View High School in Sterling, Va. Digital abuse provokes the greatest passion—how to deal with girlfriends who text and demand answers at 4 a.m., or boyfriends who threaten to call you a slut on Facebook as a control tactic.

Students read aloud a “was it rape?” date scenario from the girl’s and the boy’s points of view in a different four-day program for ninthgrade students at Milford High School in Milford, Ohio. “Some say she asked for sex because she went back to his house and kissed him!” marvels teacher Kristi McKenney. The postskit discussion sharpens awareness of the other gender’s perspective and ways to avoid sexual abuse, she says.

At the Bronx School of Science Inquiry and Investigation in New York City, games that cue students to move to one part of the room if they think varied behaviors are OK—for example, a boyfriend hitting a girl once in a while—provoke discussion and teachable moments, notes counselor Angelica Ferreras.

Widely publicized celebrity abuse cases also attract avid teen interest, providing the grist for real-life lessons on healthy dating, teachers say.

Gender stereotypes are another way to raise kids’ awareness about dating abuse, says Ann Burke, who taught health to middle schoolers for 29 years and now does free workshops on teen dating violence for Rhode Island schools. She draws two large boxes—labeled male and female—then asks students to blurt out adjectives describing each gender. Adjectives that aren’t stereotypes are listed under “outside the box.” Then a discussion explores how valid the macho guy-passive girl images are. “The kids brainstorm the harmful effects of these aggressor-victim ideas, and it’s an easy transition to teaching about dating violence,” says Burke.

It's a cry for help, and they really want protection; they want adults to know.

In Austin, Texas, public schools, students seen as high-risk because they’ve already been involved in or exposed to violence—at home or through relationships—meet in small groups for 24 weekly support and education sessions. They create skits, draw cartoons about their feelings and make collages. Students learn how to ask for consent, how to handle jealousy and how to end a relationship.

In a powerful theater game, one student acts as puppeteer, another as puppet. “They learn and discuss what it feels like to have someone leading you around, then what it feels like to be in control, because control is so much at the heart of dating abuse,” says program director Barri Rosenbluth, who manages Expect Respect, a youth project based at the SafePlace agency in Austin.

Dating abuse can shatter a teen’s self-esteem, research suggests. Victims are also more prone to binge drinking, drug use and eating disorders. Harmful effects even reverberate into adulthood: Teens entangled in violent dating relationships are more likely than others to be involved in violent activities later on, notes Tharp of the CDC.

Last September, the CDC launched a $7 million prevention program in Baltimore; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chicago; and the Oakland-Hayward, Calif., metropolitan area. The fiveyear project includes teacher training and the testing of school curricula on dating violence. The CDC is also testing the value of a bystander “helper” curriculum called Green Dot in 13 Kentucky high schools.

“There’s increased awareness that teen dating violence is a public-health issue,” says Tharp. “We want to learn more about what works in prevention, and the CDC wants to see schools doing prevention work, so that youth are safer.”

How to Help

Prompted by school prevention programs or just urgent, spontaneous discomfort, students sometimes confide their stories of dating abuse to teachers and counselors. Although this can be a tricky scenario for the listener, it also offers a chance to be of great help, say veteran educators.

Many times it’s verbal abuse that can demolish a teen’s self-esteem and precede violence or sexual assault. “I listen, I just listen,” says Kristi McKenney, a ninth-grade health teacher in Milford, Ohio. “So many don’t feel they have someone to talk to.” Although she urges kids to see the school counselor, some resist. Often, though, they return and say, “I need help,” because, she believes, they felt listened to earlier.

Students who have been sexually abused or beaten by partners “need to understand they’re not at fault, they’re not being judged. When they’re confiding in you is not the time to say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have,’ because it only makes them feel worse,” notes Angelica Ferreras, counselor at the Bronx School of Science Inquiry and Investigation, a middle school in New York City.

Kids often think they’re the only ones this has happened to and fear sticking out as a weirdo—anathema to adolescents. So it’s good to let them know that other teens have been through this experience, suggests Katie Eklund, a school psychologist in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Tammy Hall, a recently retired Ohio health teacher, has listened to boys who were physically assaulted by jealous girlfriends. “No matter what they say, you can’t act shocked because then you’ve lost them,” she says. “It’s harder for guys to admit it because they’re supposed to be macho.”

In cases of potentially serious abuse, it’s best to set the boundaries of confidentiality early on. Counselors typically offer students confidential support but let them know that if they’re in danger of hurting themselves or others, or being hurt, there is a duty to report what students tell. Sometimes kids pull back if they hear their parents or even police will be told. But when teens reach the point of disclosure, many counselors agree with Eklund: “It’s a cry for help, and they really want protection; they want adults to know.”

Specific legal mandates on reporting abuse vary by state, so school employees should know how their state's laws apply to disclosures about dating abuse, suggests Tonya Turner, senior staff attorney at nonprofit Break the Cycle in Los Angeles.

If teens make serious accusations against a classmate, counselors often call in the other student to gain his or her perspective. Parents are called in early too.

Some schools have “stay away” policies that require abusive students to keep a certain distance from victims — they’re not put in the same classes or assigned nearby lockers, for example. “It can protect kids and help them move on from abusive relationships,” says Barri Rosenbluth, program director at Expect Respect in Austin, Texas, which provides school prevention and counseling services on dating abuse.

Who’s Abused

One in 10 adolescents say they’ve been the victim of physical dating violence, according to the CDC.


Start talking about healthy relationships early. More than 70 percent of eighth- and ninth-graders say they are already dating.

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