One of the ironies of parenting is how we seem destined to be clueless about our teenagers. Here we are, entwined in this most intimate relationship with our very own children, yet teens seem to live in another world--one with nonstop Internet access and encyclopedic knowledge of song lyrics. When teens start dating, they lurch back and forth between their private agonies and joys, and mask their problems and heartaches with arguments about learner's permits and lip gloss. We parents wait up nights and cross our fingers, hoping our kids will make it to adulthood unscathed. Unfortunately, many of them don't.
A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health highlights how perilous adolescence can be, especially for girls. The comprehensive study of 1,977 high school girls shows that 1 in 5 reports being a victim of physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship. Girls reported being "hit, slapped, shoved or forced into sexual activity" by dates. Since this is the first study of its kind, it's not clear whether such abuse is on the rise, but Dr. Jay Silverman, author of the report, called the numbers "extremely high."
As the mother of an adolescent girl lucky enough to come of age in the era of "girl power," the statistics make me wonder if, with all of our messages about empowerment and sexual openness, we've forgotten to tell our daughters that they're still vulnerable when they're with someone bigger and stronger. Laura Sessions Stepp, who spent a year interviewing teens for her book Our Last Best Shot, isn't surprised by statistics showing a high incidence of violence on dates. "Girls in high school talk a lot about the pressure to have sex," she says, "and I wonder if 'girl power' makes them think they can handle situations they're not ready for." Sara Stillman, 17, author of Soul Searching, a book for high school girls, thinks the pressure and status of having a boyfriend early can propel girls into unhealthy relationships.
Since many girls won't tell their moms and dads about dating violence, parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression, such as changes in eating and sleeping habits, or an increase in violent outbursts. Experts in youth violence prevention say parents need to talk explicitly to kids well before they reach dating age, teaching them that all violence is unacceptable and to demand respect in their friendships. Parents should know their teens' friends and encourage going out in groups. If they suspect a problem, parents should try to find someone--a counselor or adult friend--their girls will talk to. And, notes Silverman, "we can't accept that boys will be boys. We need to intervene with boys, to hold them accountable for what they are doing."
Concerned about domestic violence? Visit www.ncadv.org