As a school social worker, Christina Rufo has observed that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to dating abuse. What begins as put-downs, jealous reactions or controlling behavior can turn harmful and even dangerous.
Calling attention to harmful relationships is the mission of Teen Dating Abuse Awareness Month, which many school social workers, counselors and psychologists are promoting through education. They are joining state and national movements for the February awareness campaign.
Teens often do not yet have experience in healthy relationships, so they may not realize when things are offtrack until they are in deep. They are trying to strike out on their own as young adults, and they can easily mistake jealousy for love. Jealously has become a more threatening issue with the proliferation of social media.
“Kids who are prone to jealousy are monitoring platforms,” said Rufo, a member of the Solvay Teachers Association. She explained that a boyfriend might see photos of his girlfriend on her social media and then ask, “Why were you wearing that outfit? Why is some other guy commenting on your post?”
“All the different platforms have created a breeding ground for increased anxiety and controlling behavior in people already prone to that,” Rufo said.
Sexting is also alarming behavior, and can be used for control. In some dating situations, teens can be victims of sexual violence from coercion or forced touching to sexual trafficking.
Unhealthy treatment can begin with put-downs, which are often mislabeled as “joking.”
Teens often think some behaviors, like teasing and name-calling, are a “normal” part of a relationship, but these behaviors can become abusive and develop into serious forms of violence, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hair pulling, punching, slapping and pinching are physical forms of abuse. Guilt and shame are psychological abuse. Stalking is another form of abuse.
Rufo has established resources to deal with dating violence on her Central New York district’s website under social, emotional and mental health. Resources include links to local residential and advocacy centers.
The New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence is spreading awareness about dating abuse and providing resources to educate and help teens. NYSUT’s Women’s Committee is also promoting their information all month on social media.
The OPDV site includes access to support with a 24/7 phone number or online chat available.
“It’s difficult for teens to talk to parents. They feel embarrassed,” Rufo said. “They are afraid of the repercussions from parents, or fearful of what their peers will think.” She said her district is working as a team to help enlighten students about dating abuse.
“As we talk more about social-emotional learning, it comes out. It’s also in books that are being discussed,” Rufo said.
Studying historical events such as women’s suffrage can generate questions to students, including “How do you advocate for yourself?” Rufo explained.
The school psychologists, social workers and counselors have a vital role to play, which is one of the many reasons NYSUT is advocating for one of each of them in every building as part of its Future Forward initiative to lawmakers.
“In today’s world, it’s pretty significant to have resources available at the place where they’re spending the most time,” Rufo said.
Providing a safe space for teens to talk, and knowing the signs that can signal concern, are vital to help students. Teens who are homeless, who have disabilities, or who are LGBQT+ are even more vulnerable to dating abuse, reports the NYS violence prevention office.
What does “dating abuse” look like?
Signs of potential dating abuse include:
- Decreased or lost attachments with family/loved ones
- Frequent arguing, fighting
- Unable to attend events without partner
- Isolating from prior friends/activities
- Significant age difference in the couple
- Becoming uncharacteristically emotional, anxious, weepy, edgy
- Frequent breaking up and getting back together
- Constant texting
- Using more makeup, or none at all