Teenagers, Love and Abuse

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By Grace Rubenstein

(AllenSkye: Flickr)
(AllenSkye: Flickr)

This is not the stuff of puppy love.

When Madhuri Malhotra was a younger teen in Richmond, it was normal for her high school boyfriend to call her a b---- and cuss her out.

“He would cheat on me, and he would make it so that I was in the wrong. I would feel bad and I would be the one saying sorry,” she told me recently. “Everywhere I went I was so depressed, because I felt like I was doing something wrong,”

When she finally learned the definition of verbal and emotional abuse, “I was mind boggled,” said Malhotra, who is now 18. “I tried to get out of it, but then my heart wouldn’t let me, so then I’d go back in it.”

Malhotra’s epiphany about abuse was lucky, almost serendipitous. While job-hunting via a Richmond city agency, she found part-time work as a youth peer educator with the nonprofit STAND! for Families Free of Violence, based in Concord. The job training opened her eyes.


Now Malhotra travels Contra Costa County teaching youth (and sometimes grownups, too) this message: The same kinds of violence that we see in abusive adult relationships – calling your partner nasty names, telling her what to wear and who she can be friends with, controlling her with threats, pressuring her into sexual acts, or even physically hitting her – also commonly happen between teens.

This fact is not widely recognized, and until now, many California communities haven’t really been paying attention. Parents haven’t known what signs to look for. Schools haven’t consistently taught kids what constitutes abuse or intervened in their intimate relationships.

Case in point: I told a Bay Area friend of mine, a dad of three, about my research for this post. He’s an involved and caring father who participates in parent groups and coaches youth sports. His response: “What’s teen dating abuse? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a real big problem,” Marquez Johnson told me. He’s 20, a Berkeley City College student and Malhotra’s fellow educator at STAND. He said he used to curse at and insult his girlfriends until his sisters gave him the wakeup call: “You’re acting like our mom’s boyfriends.”

Without stronger efforts to combat dating violence, Johnson said, “There are teens that might think it’s the only way you’re supposed to be.”

STAND’s peer educators teach dating abuse awareness to around 2,000 middle and high school students a year.

They point out that among teens, abuse also often crosses into digital realms. Young lovers might publicly share nude photos of their partners, or text-message them dozens of times an hour to check their whereabouts. Johnson said a friend of his was humiliated when her ex-boyfriend posted sexual details about her on Facebook. She ultimately switched schools.

Yet if the behavior falls short of physical violence, teens – like many adults in abusive relationships – may not recognize it as abuse.

Malhotra sees that confusion among the teens she educates for STAND. When she spoke recently to a group of youth, several of them approached her afterward with a question about emotional blackmail. If your partner “knows you deepest, darkest secrets” and threatens to expose them if you leave, they asked her, is that abuse? She told them it is.

STAND has previously worked on teen dating violence in small ways, delivering lessons in local schools – when they had enough money – since the 1980s. But regional director Sharon Turner sees this is a moment to attempt something bigger.

Various factors have helped build momentum to combat teen dating violence. For one thing, new research has revealed just how common it is. More one in three adolescents in one survey said their boyfriend or girlfriend had psychologically abused them, and nearly one in three reported physical abuse – and these were just seventh-graders.

Research on trauma is also demonstrating that early abuse can produce long-term damage in people’s lives. And the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence (CPEDV) launched a statewide effort to combat teen dating violence in 2010.

“Now that there’s more data, there’s a heightened urgency,” Turner explained.

Now STAND and Contra Costa County are joining forces to mount a county-wide effort, bringing in other agencies and schools and aiming to involve adult and youth leaders side by side. They’ve held series of community discussions and training since March and hope to have strategy defined by this fall.

That kind of coordinated, large-scale effort is still rare.

Lisa Fujie Parks, prevention program manager at CPEDV, told me that efforts against teen dating violence currently have “tepid support.” What they need to achieve, she said, is “a mass level of understanding and support.”