By Bill Stanczykiewicz
For The Herald Bulletin
Prom season can create a lifetime of memories, but for too many teenagers those memories are tragic and carry a lifetime of consequences.
Teen dating violence in Indiana consistently is higher than national averages. For example, 15 percent of female high school students report being raped on a date — the second highest rate in the nation and three percentage points higher than the rest of the country.
In 2009 nearly 11 percent of female high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by their date, two percentage points higher than the U.S. average. In addition, 12 percent of high school males reported being victimized by the person they were dating.
The wretched effects of teen dating violence persist into adulthood. According to a Cornell University study, young women who endured dating violence in their teen years are more likely to suffer from depression, have suicidal thoughts and engage in binge drinking. Young men, meanwhile, also are more likely to be suicidal, abuse drugs and engage in delinquent behaviors if they suffered teen dating violence.
Sadly, the Cornell study found that teens who are abused or assaulted during a date are two-to-three times more likely to again be victims of dating violence as adults.
Dissecting this cycle of dating violence, Deinera Exner-Cortens of Cornell explained, “Adolescence is a time when teens start to date and learn about healthy relationships. So when their earliest dating experiences are unhealthy, it may negatively affect a teen’s view of what a healthy dating relationship looks like.”
Along with the traumatic human cost, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the financial cost associated with teen dating violence to be $5.8 billion, primarily for health care and law enforcement.
The Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault (INCASA) recommends that parents and other caring adults watch teens for the warning signs of a violent dating relationship. Along with physical injury, the list includes truancy, falling grades, changes in mood including an increase in emotional outbursts as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
Another caution: Teens who will not spend time with friends unless they have “permission” from the teen they are dating likely are in an abusive dating relationship.
Teens should stay on alert for other controlling and violent behaviors by their date, such as extreme jealousy, unpredictable mood swings, use of force during an argument, cruelty to animals and children, online bullying and threats of violence.
A national survey revealed that only one-third of teenagers who are victimized by their date ever tell anyone they know about the abuse or violence. Teens should be encouraged to speak up and seek the help they need. Local services and assistance can be located by calling 1-800-656-HOPE.
Most importantly, Exner-Cortens said, adults need to model and discuss healthy relationships. “That’s the thing we’re really striving for,” she said. “Some things that are in a healthy dating relationship are respect, safety, support, honesty, good communication and equality. We really want to focus on those characteristics with adolescents.”
The sooner, the better. “Middle school is a great time to start communicating about healthy relationships and dating violence, even before your child starts dating,” Exner-Cortens advised. “By doing that, kids will know that the parent is someone they can go to for help if they start to feel concerned or worried about a relationship that they’re in.”
State law requires schools to teach students about healthy dating relationships, and community organizations also can influence healthy dating behaviors. The Indiana Attorney General’s office hosts the Indiana Safe Student Initiative, providing training to teachers and youth workers about how to talk with teens about healthy relationships and preventing dating violence.
“Education is key here,” said Abigail Kuzma, deputy attorney general. “As kids start into dating relationships, they’re inexperienced and they’re going to have questions. The media, the movies we watch, what the kids are saying to each other, gets to be very confusing. A child may not know what normal is in a relationship and may be more vulnerable (to teen dating violence).”
As prom season approaches, we need to model healthy behavior and help teens stay safe in their dating relationships. Now, and for their futures.
Bill Stanczykiewicz, former Anderson radio sports announcer, is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.