Unmasking an epedemic

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SUSSEX COUNTY-A new generation, and what was once hidden in the social closet, is now in the open and a major problem among teens of Generation Y: teen dating violence. According to a 1995 poll, 40 percent of teenage girls ages 14 through 17 report knowing someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend. "We are really facing an epidemic of this with young people today," says Tracy Berge, of Vernon High School's Health and Physical Education department. "It's appalling the way teens who are dating will speak to each other, and there's a level of acceptance that we have to break." Diana Morrison, Associate Director of Domestic Abuse Services, Inc., (DASI) in Newton, agrees. "All dating violence and abuse is about power and control," she says. "But there's the assumption that if it isn't physical, it's not that bad. Emotional and psychological abuse has devastating effects upon an individual." According to Morrison, signs of an abusive relationship, whether physical or verbal, include constant phone calls, name-calling, put-downs, random appearances, and accusations of affairs. Girls may show a drop in grades, an increase in substance abuse, a change in clothing, an appearance of sudden illnesses, development of an eating disorder, a pullback from social plans with friends or school activities, and unexplained injuries. In the battle against this social illness, teens are the ones manning the trenches. Before the signs reached the point of adults noticing them, most experts agree, the victim's friends and peers are the first to know. Morrison suggests that friends who notice such signs should ask questions and point out the abusive behavior. Friends should also point out their friend's strengths and let her know that none of the abuse is her fault. Friends can let the offender know specifically what behavior they witnessed and that there are consequences for his behavior. Friends can also offer to go get help with him. "Friends may see the signs before adults do," Morrison explains. "One of the most important things for friends to do is to stay supportive. It's very important that a girl's support system remain intact, as it has taken her time to get into the relationship and it is going to take her time to get out." But, Morrison cautions, "Although parents may encourage their teen to end the relationship, forbidding her to see the boyfriend could cause her to become more secretive. Isolation increases a victim's safety risks. It is vital that the lines of communication remain open, as she will need her parents' support and assistance. Parents should educate themselves on the warning signs of an abusive relationship and talk to their children about healthy versus abusive relationships. If the warning signs of an abusive relationship emerge, parents should express concern, let their daughter know she has options and identify resources available to help her. According to Morrison, Counselors should, first and foremost, make sure they believe, validate, and support a victim. Safety planning must be an integral part of any session whether the victimized person decides to stay or leave an abusive relationship. In a situation where there is access to both the victim and the offender, such as at school, parties should be addressed individually. DASI programs for teens in abusive relationships include individual counseling, support groups, legal advocacy, and court accompaniment. So too do they provide outreach education programs on dating violence and abuse. "It's so important that we educate our youth on understanding the dynamics of an abusive relationship, identifying warning signs, and ways to assist a friend in need. When teenagers start to set standards for what's acceptable and not acceptable and hold their peers accountable for their actions, that's when we'll start to see the disintegration of abuse in interpersonal relationships," said Morrison. If you are in need of help, call the DASI 24-hour hotline at 973-875-1211. To contact their community outreach services, call 973-579-2386.