Addressing dating relationships in youth groups is a difficult task. We want the best for our students and hope that they will choose wisely among their peers. Often, teachings on dating focus on finding someone who shares a faith in Jesus as well as sexual purity. Given the fact that these students may not have a strong framework for choosing a dating partner, it is equally important that we make them aware of some common pitfalls of dating. The risk of ending up in an abusive or violent relationship as a teen is very real. When it happens at this tender age it can impact self-esteem, self-worth and put at student on a troubling path. Violence works cyclically, with abuse victims often moving from abuser to abuser.
We have the unique ability to educate our students early so that they are less likely to get caught in this trap at all, setting them on a healthier path for future relationships.
Among people (it happens to both men and women) who end up in an abusive relationship, a common lament is how they didn’t realize what they had stumbled into before it was too late. I often hear people say that they feel stupid for “getting into this mess” when in truth their partner was actively deceiving them and using manipulation to slowly gain power and control over them.
There are many ways that abuse begins before anything gets physical. We can do the MOST good for our students by helping them see it before it starts.
By the time someone is involved in dating violence it’s harder to help, more difficult to help them see something is going on, and potentially more dangerous for the teen (see resources at the conclusion of this article if you discover one of your students is already involved in an abusive relationship). What follows are some signs we can help teens know to watch out for. All of these indicators are ways in which an abuser is using power or control in the relationship. In addressing these issues within your group there are a couple of pitfalls that are easy traps for well-meaning helpers to fall into. These are addressed in this article in italics to assist leaders in helping in responsible and productive ways.
USING ANGER OR EMOTIONAL ABUSE
This behavior can look a lot of different ways. It may take the form of name-calling, put-downs, or making their partner feel guilty or bad about themselves. This can also take the form of mind games, making their partner think he or she is crazy. A common technique called “gaslighting” uses subtle techniques to make someone else question their grip on reality. If a teen reports that conversations with a significant other frequently end with them feeling bad about themselves it may be time to have a serious chat about whether the relationship is healthy.
ISOLATION & EXCLUSION
If a teen’s significant other is limiting their activities or communication in any way, this could be a likely trouble sign. Using jealousy or other means to limit contact with certain (or all) friends or family, or to monopolize time is a common way control is used by abusers. In the context of youth ministry, a teen may isolate their partner from youth group or positive adult influences.
You may be less likely to hear about this one because it often amounts to blackmail. They may threaten to tell secrets to peers or expose unflattering information or material about their partner if they are crossed. This is a way to ensure that the relationship continues and that behavior remains within the abuser’s chosen parameters. Keep in mind that it’s all about the use of power and control.
Abusive partners take information they are trusted with and weaponize it. For this reason, it is not a good idea for youth workers to address the couple together. Anything said in the meeting with the two teens may be used against the abusee. In fact, in most circumstances, it is even inappropriate to do couples therapy when there is abuse present. Your efforts to address the pair together or divulge information to the abuser could make things worse. Be careful. Be trustworthy.
MINIMIZING, DENYING, BLAMING
In an abusive relationship, the abuser often makes light of the abuse or may deny it entirely. The victim in the relationship may also be blamed for the abuse. These are more mind games, but also a way for the abuser to avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions.
By making the abusee believe it is their fault these things are happening, they gain more control.
Severe domestic violence also works on a cycle wherein violent episodes are followed by profuse apologies and a period of relative calm. A diagram of this pattern can be found here. It’s important to recognize this calm period (which may include apologies, temporarily kept promises or gift giving) as part of the cycle of violence. Denial keeps this cycle going.
THREATS, COERCION, INTIMIDATION
An abuser may make threats in order to maintain control. They may also use intimidating behavior like breaking things, throwing furniture, or punching holes in walls. Coercion is also used to control behavior by making threats or using manipulation. Manipulation can also include sexual coercion, which can involve giving someone drugs or alcohol to obtain sex. The abuser may use other leverage, such as threats to family or pets in order to control behavior. The abuser may also use social status to control their partner’s behavior.
Be careful not to dismiss concerns you may have about a student just because they “have it all together” on the outside. An abusive dating partner could easily be captain of the football team, head cheerleader, or valedictorian.
Examine your biases about your students and try to see things objectively. Abusers often grow up to be ambitious individuals in positions of power. This is one issue that cuts across demographic lines and affects all levels of society.
Informing students about these indicators before they happen is a great way to help them be proactive in their relationships. Consider using these points as the focus of a lesson or small group discussion. You may be surprised how many students have observed these behaviors within their peer group. Below are websites with printable handouts for students. When my husband and I presented this information to our students, the demand for resources was so great that we kept a stack of copies in the teen room for anyone to access whenever they needed it. Your teens and their friends ARE dealing with these issues and you are a powerful resource to help them!
Thankfully, there are plentiful resources for leaders as well as teens. Find an interactive review of these behaviors and other resources for teens who may be dealing with dating violence at http://www.loveisrespect.org/is-this-abuse/power-and-control-wheel/. The source for this article is the Power and Control Wheel, a widely accessible, simple, printable graphic that can be found here and outlines all these concepts. Additional information about dating violence warning signs and help can be found at http://ccwrc.org/for-teens/warning-signs/. The diagram showing the cycle of dating violence can be found at http://www.dvsolutions.org/info/cycle.aspx.
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