February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. We spoke with a Legacy provider – who screens for teen dating violence during her visits – about what signs to look for.
By Barrett White
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Nearly 1 in 11 female and approximately 1 in 14 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year. Additionally, some teens may be at greater risk than others: Sexual minority groups are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence, and some racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by many types of violence. Teen Dating Violence (TDV) can have significant effects on a developing teen, which can lead to increased rates of depression and anxiety, increased possibility of drug or alcohol use, antisocial behaviors, and increased suicidality.
Legacy works to detect teen dating violence with patient intake screenings. All adolescent patients ages 12 and up are screened with a standard screening protocol: The Hurt, Insult, Threaten, and Scream (HITS) test, which asks teens how often their partner engages in hurtful or abusive behavior.
“At many of our sites, teens are able to fill out these questions on either an iPad or a handout, which has made teens feel more comfortable answering honestly,” says Dr. Amelia Averyt, Medical Director of Family Practice at Legacy. “Also, with all teenage and adolescent visits, clinicians talk to the patient one-on-one. This interview usually follows a structure where we discuss the health and wellness of the teen in different settings, including at home and at school, during activities and with peers, within the context of drugs, their sexual health, concerns with suicidality, and disturbances of emotions, behaviors, and/or thoughts. Usually in the ‘peers’ section or ‘sexual health’ section we will discuss peer violence.”
We sat down with Dr. Averyt to discuss how teens can detect signs of teen dating violence, whether they’re a victim of it, sensing it among their friends – or perpetuating it themselves.
What steps can teens take to recognize patterns of abuse?
“The most important step that teens can take to recognize is first learning more about what abuse may look like. An abusive relationship always involves an imbalance of power and control. Abusers use intimidating, hurtful words and behaviors to control their partner. It is easy for us to assume that if the abuse doesn’t leave a mark on the outside, that it is not true abuse.
“I usually discuss what emotional abuse can look like, sound like, and feel like with concrete examples. Emotional abuse is also very common, with almost half of dating teenagers reporting experiencing psychological dating abuse in a 2013 report from The Urban Institute. Emotional abuse can include verbal abuse, gaslighting, isolation, humiliation, and intimidation or threats.
“Abuse is often cyclical and it may take many cycles of abuse for anyone to recognize abuse in their relationships. In addition, abuse can often begin in more subtle ways, but often gets worse over time. One may eventually recognize the pattern: the abuser threatens violence, the abuse strikes, the abuser apologizes, promises to change, and offers gifts, and then the cycle repeats itself.
“We also want to make sure that a teenager has an adult that they can confide in and discuss what may be going on in their relationship. If someone they trust has concerns about abuse, the teen may initially have some doubts or denial, and that is when it is most helpful to read about abuse and patterns of abuse and see if any of the information resonates with them or that they can see in their relationships.”
How can a teen recognize if they are continuing a cycle of dating violence against their partner without meaning to?
“This can be very hard to do, and may require both internal and external alerts. If the teen takes some time to reflect on the relationship and feels like they are repeating a cycle, it could be a red flag to consider whether there is abuse involved in a relationship.
“Some signs may be frequent fighting (which often results from trying to control how someone behaves or feels, which is ultimately impossible) and then making up afterwards. If the teen recognizes that there are ‘good times’ in the relationship, but may only come after a big fight or breakup, there may be some components of the power and control that underlies an abusive relationship.
“Also, it can be hard at times to listen to concerns from other people, including close friends and family, but it is often worthwhile. I think there is something to trusting your gut, too and if you feel like you are not acting your normal self, or out of control at any time, it is important to reassess the details of your relationship.”
What advice might you have for a teen who recognizes that they’re experiencing dating violence and wants out of the relationship – but is afraid to say anything?
“First and foremost, my concern is for the teen’s safety and wellbeing. It is normal for a person experiencing dating violence to have difficulty recognizing that they are in one – one of the tactics of an abuser is to make you believe you have no choice but to stay.
“Everybody’s situation is different, and for some, the timing may not be right to end the relationship with the abuser. In these cases, it is important to create a safety plan to lower your risk of being hurt by your partner – this includes internet safety measures to prevent partners from monitoring your whereabouts.
“If the person is ready to leave a relationship, they should talk to someone that they trust for help, especially if they feel unsafe. It is also important that victims give themselves grace – it is normal to miss and love an abusive partner, but to continue to do what is best for their safety and health.”
The national theme for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month 2022 is “Talk About It”, a direct call to action for young people and their elder allies to hold space for meaningful conversations about what makes healthy relationships work, as well as how to navigate unhealthy or abusive ones.
“Dating violence comes in many forms, and is only further complicated by social media and the internet in general,” Dr. Averyt says. “Teens, and everyone, should always think about whether they feel at their best, supported and loved by a partner. It is important to read about dating violence to be prepared to recognize it both in our own relationships and in those of our friends and family. Ultimately, the decision of what to do in a relationship is up to the people in that relationship and the best thing we can do is support our loved ones and friends, and remember that we cannot control them, but can help them work towards a better, safer, healthier life.”
To schedule an appointment with your Legacy provider, call (832) 548-5000 or visit www.legacycommunityhealth.org.