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Focus on Teen Dating Violence

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Teen dating violence is an important issue that is often not taken as seriously as it should. But it is serious, and affects millions of teens every year.

National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is led by Love is Respect, a project by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Studies have shown that teen dating violence occurs at similar rates in immigrant and non-immigrant communities. However, the factors at play in these circumstances are very different.

In general, South Asian teens have very different dating experiences than their White peers. The factors that make these experiences different are also what make teen dating violence among South Asian teens uniquely challenging.

Teen Dating Violence At Large

Before discussing the specifics of teen dating violence in the South Asian community, we need to set the scene. Teen dating violence is, unfortunately, much more prevalent than many would like to admit. At least 1 in 4 teens report some form of abuse in their relationships. Less conservative estimates increase that to 1 in 3.

For a more literal example, imagine an average Minnesota high school classroom — about 27 students. Statistically-speaking, 7-9 high school students in a given Minnesota classroom have experienced some form of relationship abuse.

Teen dating violence can take many forms. It’s always important to remember that physical abuse is not the end-all defining characteristic of abusive relationships. Compare the statistics — 1 in 4 teens experience some form of abuse in their relationships. But the number of teens who experience physically abusive relationships is closer to 1 in 10. That means that there’s other forms of abuse happening that are much more common.

Teen Dating Violence in the South Asian Community

As said earlier, teen dating violence tends to occur at comparable rates in both immigrant and non-immigrant communities. However, the dating experiences of South Asian teens can be vastly different from their peers. This is especially true for teens who are first-generation (with parents from South Asia) as they acculturate differently from their parents. Acculturation refers to the process of getting used to a new culture, and how one’s cultural practices may change as a result.

For teens who grow up in the United States, that process is much easier and more organic. For adults, that process tends to be more difficult. Differences in acculturation lend themselves to cultural and generational gaps. A really big gap is often that between parents’ and children’s attitudes towards dating.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence interviewed South Asian high school and college students about their dating and relationship experiences. Many (but not all) participants shared a common experience of hiding their relationships from parents.

South Asian culture both in South Asia and among diaspora is progressing in this regard, but this is the reality for many teens living around more patriarchal attitudes. This affects all genders. Participants in the study reported dating in secret, not learning how to form healthy relationships, and generational differences affecting their experiences.

These experiences mesh together to create circumstances that make it difficult to recognize or get out of abusive relationships. Some participants who felt they could not talk to their parents about dating also felt that they couldn’t get their help with abusive relationships. Friends of participants had similar experiences in their own families. Of course, there were other participants who felt they could talk to their parents openly about such issues. For one, it was experiencing an abusive relationship that changed her parents’ attitudes and opened up conversation between them.

The common desire among participants was for parents to be more open to conversations about dating. They wanted to learn about healthy relationships from their parents rather than repeat mistakes. That parent-child dialogue can be crucial for recognizing and preventing teen dating violence.

Recognizing Teen Dating Violence

Knowing that physical abuse isn’t necessarily the most common form of abuse, we need to discuss the other forms abuse can take. This is especially important when discussing teen relationships because that’s the time in life when we form our relationship standards. Adults with more relationship experience have more solidified boundaries and standards. But for teens who are learning about themselves and relationships, recognizing abuse can be more difficult without that learned frame of reference.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some warning signs of abuse. According to Love is Respect, relationships are a spectrum and it’s not always easy to recognize abusive behaviors, especially in the early stages.

Typical warning signs include…

  • Checking your phone, email, or social media without permission
  • Putting you down frequently, especially in front of others
  • Isolating you from friends or family (physically, emotionally, or financially)
  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  • Explosive outbursts, temper, or mood swings
  • Any form of physical harm

Consequences of Teen Dating Violence

Teen dating violence shares many similar consequences with abusive relationships in adults, with the added dimension of occurring during formative years. Emotional development is heavily influenced by relationship experiences. Relationships during teenage years also help set the standard by which future relationships will be judged.

Consequences of teen dating violence are varied and serious. Here are some common ones…

  • Poor academic performance or attendance due to not feeling safe
  • Substance dependence or abuse
  • STI or unwanted pregnancy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and depression
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts
  • Development of a negative body image and discomfort with sexuality
  • Overdependence on others and a lack of independence
  • Entering into future abusive relationships

Furthermore, the effects can be far-reaching into the future. Experiences as youth shape the adults we become. Teens who have experienced dating violence may also experience challenges with…

  • Establishing intimacy with future partners
  • Developing personal boundaries and values
  • Establishing their adult identity

These consequences make it very important that we can have open and honest conversations with teens, especially for parents. A judgement-free support system is critical for navigating and escaping abusive situations.

What If My Friend is in an Abusive Relationship?

It’s not always easy to recognize an abusive relationship for what it is. It can be especially difficult from the outside. Remember that the warning signs of abuse listed above still apply. But also remember that every situation is unique. Your efforts to help your friend should reflect their unique situation. However, according to Love is Respect, there are some broad, generally applicable actions you can take.

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out if you think they need help (and would be receptive to it)
  • Be supportive, listen patiently, and respect their decisions even if you don’t agree with them
  • Help them create a safety plan and work out how you can help them
  • Document abuse (even if it’s hard to see) and keep that documentation away from the abuser
  • Identify local resources for your friend to consult, such as school counselors or community services such as SEWA’s 24/7 crisis line (952-912-9100)

If you are supporting a friend and helping them out of an abusive situation, also remember to keep taking care of yourself. Practice good self-care and take care of your mental health so that you can continue to support your friend without hurting yourself in the process.

What If My Child is in an Abusive Relationship?

This is where we have room to grow and improve as a community. Of course, this is not to say that there are no teens who can approach their parents with dating issues. But, as shown in the study previously discussed, many South Asian teens don’t feel like they can approach their parents with these issues.

It’s important for parents to demonstrate trustworthiness so that their children will continue to trust them. Like with support from friends, this means respecting their decisions even if you disagree with them. The most important part is maintaining an atmosphere of trust, support, and non-judgement.

As a parent, your first instinct may be to rescue them and remove them from the situation immediately, and understandably so. But abusive relationships are rarely so simple. It’s important to let your child maintain their autonomy. If your child is in an abusive relationship, it’s important that you…

  • Accept what they’re telling you and don’t push for information they aren’t volunteering
  • Don’t pass judgement
  • Allow them to make their own decisions
  • Don’t give up, even when it’s frustrating or scary

It’s important to be a resource and a steadfast supporter, and not necessarily a savior. Every situation is unique and it’s best to approach carefully. Consult reliable resources and experts. SEWA also has a 24/7 crisis line (952-912-9100) that you can call.

Whatever the situation, remember to respect your child’s boundaries and autonomy so you can maintain an atmosphere of trust. Follow the advice of resources and experts, and you can work together to make things better.

If you or someone you know is facing dating violence, call our 24/7 crisis line at (952) 912-9100, or Love is Respect at 1-866-331-9474.

Read more about healthy relationships here.

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