This past weekend should have been the college graduation of the beautiful young athlete, Yeardley Love. Instead she received a degree posthumously while her boyfriend is charged with first degree murder. Sadly, today in the United States twice as many women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends than murdered by total strangers. As an emergency physician I am all too familiar with this type of violence, which goes by many names, including intimate partner violence, domestic violence or teen dating violence.
Whatever you call it, it claims the lives of 3 women a day in the United States. In fact, young women ages 16-24 are the most vulnerable age group, almost triple the national average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
And if you think this could not happen to your daughter, your sister or your friend, think again. This case of well-to-do college students further illustrates how dating violence crosses all socioeconomic and racial groups.
As with domestic violence at any age, it is about how one partner uses violence to obtain power and control over the other partner. And commonly, as was the case with Yeardley Love, the violence escalates when the abusive partner starts to lose control. So the most dangerous time in these relationships is when the abused partner finally tries to end the relationship. That is when stalking and, in some cases, murder can occur.
Experts believe that teens and young people are more vulnerable because of their inexperience with relationships as well as the peer pressure to be in relationships. Often these young women have unrealistic romanticized views of love. They might feel responsible (like many victims) for the abuse and problems in their relationship. Or they mistake the critical warning signs of an abusive relationship, things such as obsessive jealousy or possessiveness as romance or signs of affection.
Conversely young men might feel pressure to control and be aggressive with their partners as a sign of masculinity. They also might feel entitled to intimacy in their relationships and demand it both verbally and physically.
And because these young adults want independence from their parents, studies show only about 1/3 of young people in violent relationships ever talk to anyone about it. Likewise, over half of parents admit they have not spoken to their children about dating violence and healthy relationships.
Signs you might notice if your child is being abused in a relationship; depression, mood swings, truancy and problems in school, isolation from friends and family, use of drugs and alcohol as well as physical signs of injury. There are some clues you might notice if your child is becoming abusive: extreme jealousy and controlling behavior, explosive, abusive verbal outbursts and the use of force in an argument, blaming others for problems and making violent threats.
We need to pay attention and stay involved in our children's lives. Early adolescence is the critical juncture at which we need to talk to our children about what constitutes a healthy relationship. If we are worried, we can talk with a health professional who can put us in touch with our local agencies that deal with partner and family violence. We need to demand that our schools include this in their health curriculum, with other important topics such a bullying. We need to educate our communities to this danger.
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) has great campaigns we can use to start a conversation with our kids and their schools on preventing teen violence and promoting healthy relationships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an online course for educators to help prevent teen dating violence. We need to all work together to break the cycle of violence.