Protecting our children and teens from abuse
Teen dating abuse has been a controversial topic played out in public forums recently. Family Centre and Saving Children and Revealing Secrets have teamed up to share our joint perspective on the issue of abuse in teen relationships and how to best protect our young people.
First, there is no behaviour that should be ever considered an invitation or justification for abuse. Abuse is unacceptable treatment of another person, usually to gain benefits such as power and control.
Abuse comes in many forms:
• Physical or verbal maltreatment
• Unjust practices
• Other types of aggression
For example, dressing provocatively should never send a message or an open invitation to sexual offenders that “it’s OK to sexually violate me because of the way I’m dressed”. We certainly would not want sexual predators to believe that an outfit or any behaviour is an invitation. Nor would we ever want a sexual predator to believe the way someone acts on social media is an invitation to violate them. This is a dangerous road to go down and we must do everything we can to promote consent, self-control and boundaries.
Dating and relationship violence includes any type of physical, sexual or emotional abuse that occurs between two people dating each other. Abusers seek to gain control over others by manipulating or dominating them. At its core, dating and relationship violence is about one person misusing power to control another person. There is often a cloak of secrecy for victims of dating and relationship abuse because they often feel powerless, frightened and ashamed. This results in reluctance to report the abuse because they may feel they are somehow at fault — or they may have fears that the violence will escalate if they disclose and expose the abuser.
Second, as adults, we need to ensure that children and teens have a clear understanding of what behaviours are completely unacceptable in any relationship. Young people should be taught to have zero tolerance for any abusive, coercive or disrespectful language or behaviour — whether it is directly or indirectly threatening — and should immediately seek help to end relationships with those who subject them to any type of abuse.
Abusers often manipulate others by belittling and demeaning them; those who are being abused may eventually see themselves as worthless and deserving of abuse. Therefore, it is important for youth to recognise this type of behaviour early in a relationship and to exit that relationship promptly for their own protection and sense of self-worth.
There are several warning signs parents should pay attention to that could indicate their child is experiencing relationship abuse. A drastic change in a teen's mood or personality around the same time a relationship intensifies can be a warning sign. Any unexplainable physical injuries such as bruises and cuts are warnings. If your child spends excessive amounts of time with someone else and they seem anxious about being out of contact with that person, this may indicate that they are feeling pressured to stay in contact with them. If you notice that your child is spending increased time with someone, and simultaneously begins to either drop out of activities they previously enjoyed and now spend far less time with other friends, or start to struggle academically, these are signs for concern and should be openly addressed.
If parents or caregivers suspect that their child is experiencing an abusive relationship, they should talk to their child about their concerns in a manner that demonstrates love and concern. Parents should explain the specific changes they are seeing and explain why those changes cause concern. People who experience abuse are often reluctant to talk about their experiences because they may feel powerless, ashamed or frightened and may deny there is any cause for concern, or may become angry and upset with others for raising the matter.
When concerned adults initiate discussion with young people about abuse, it is critical to communicate understanding and compassion to pave the way for healing and empowerment to understand what makes up healthy relationships. Empowered children and teens need to feel safe, loved and respected to best reduce risking further emotional, social or physical harm.
Teens need to hear about what healthy relationships look like. Please see the “Healthy Relationship Checklist” on Family Centre’s website to share with your teen. Young people need support in understanding and communicating their emotional and physical boundaries, as well as knowing how to respect the boundaries of others. In addition, adults should model respectful and loving relationships for young people. Parents and caregivers should examine their own relationships and make sure they demonstrate encouragement, support, safety and respect in their relationships.
As importantly, parents or caregivers should discuss the importance of breaking up relationships safely with teens, and teach the importance of discussing and accepting rejection since it is normal for break-ups to occur.
There are local resources that can help families experiencing issues of abuse. Many of the resources are at no cost to families owing to the immense generosity of Bermuda’s giving community. If you need to report abuse or have any immediate concerns about your child’s safety, call the Department of Child and Family Services referral hotline at 278-9111 and/or the police. If you want to become more informed on how to prevent sexual abuse or need an advocate voice for your child or family, contact Scars at 297-2277. If you need to seek counselling for your child and/or family because of experiences of any abuse-related trauma, contact Family Centre at 232-1116.
If parents recognise that they may be in an abusive relationship, they can contact the Centre Against Abuse’s 24-hour hotline at 297-8278 to get help, support and, if needed, consider safe housing for themselves and their children. Parents play a primary role in educating their children about healthy relationships, what is important in dating relationships, what to look for in dating relationships, and what warning signs to look for.
Finally, it is important to emphasise that there is never an explicit or implied invitation for abuse to occur. We all must be accountable for our actions and access the support we need to ensure that we are all practising healthy self-control and behaviours in relationships so that we do not inflict harm or pain in anyone else’s life.
• Sandy De Silva, PsyD is the executive director of Family Centre
• Debi Ray-Rivers is the executive director of the child sexual abuse prevention organisation Saving Children and Revealing Secrets