It may be the last thing that parents talk to their children about, though it might be one of the most important: a teenager’s romantic relationship.
As the recent conviction of Nathaniel Fujita, 20, for the murder of his former girlfriend, Lauren Astley, 18, illustrated, dating violence can have catastrophic consequences.
While murder may be an extreme outcome, teen dating abuse is more common and may have longer-reaching health effects than parents realize, experts say.
Abuse among dating teenagers “is pretty rampant,” said Judith Siegel, a social worker and the director of mental health services in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. “Kids don’t tell you. You hear about it after the breakup.”
Nine percent of high school students in the state reported being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner in the last year, according to the 2011 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. A 2011 national study puts the number of teen victims of dating violence at one in 10. When the definition of abuse is expanded to include verbal insults and controlling behavior, studies report the incidence at more than 20 percent.
All teens, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are vulnerable as they experiment with their first intimate relationships, Siegel said. “Like many things kids do at that age, they are doing it before they can comprehend how to do it.”
Teenagers often don’t know what constitutes a healthy relationship, she said. Signs of abuse can be subtle, and difficult for both parents and the teen to recognize. Teens might write off verbal abuse, saying their girlfriend or boyfriend didn’t mean it.
Verbal abuse alone undermines a teenager’s fragile sense of self-worth and puts one partner in control and makes the other one submissive, she said. “And unfortunately abuse that starts off verbally can escalate.”
Although the majority of abuse is boys against girls, boys can be victims of girls and of other boys, she said. Abuse “is not restricted to heterosexual relationships.”
A recent study out of Cornell University found that teenagers in physically or psychologically abusive dating relationships were more than twice as likely to repeat unhealthy relationships in adulthood. They were also more likely to report problems with depression, substance abuse, and suicidal feelings than teens who had healthy dating relationships.
“A teenager’s first romantic relationship plays a critical role in helping an adolescent develop a sense of who he or she is — personally and sexually,” said Deinera Exner-Cortens, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in human development at Cornell. “If a teen’s first intimate relationship is abusive, it may skew what his or her view of what a healthy relationship looks like.”
The study, which was published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics, analyzed a sample of nearly 6,000 Americans 12 to 18 years old from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They were interviewed as teens and again five years later.
Females who had experienced teen dating violence — defined as psychological or physical violence — reported increased symptoms of depression and were 1.5 times more likely to binge-drink or smoke and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who did not experience dating abuse. Males who experienced teen dating violence reported more anti-social behaviors and were 1.3 times more likely to use marijuana and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Earlier research had shown that dating violence against teenage girls was associated with increased risk of eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, pregnancy, and attempted suicide.
Exner-Cortens says more research needs to be done to understand the pathways from victimization to poor health, and she is currently at work on a follow-up study.
One of the problems surrounding teen dating abuse is that many parents have difficulty recognizing it and are reluctant to broach the topic at home, said Emily F. Rothman, associate professor of public health at Boston University.
In a nationwide survey of 500 parents of children aged 11 to 18, little more than half said they had talked to their children about dating abuse. More parents had talked to their children about drinking, drugs, family finances, and sex, said Rothman, who was lead author of the study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“The message has gotten through to parents that part of their job is talking about alcohol, drugs, and safer sex, but the message about dating violence is lagging behind,” she said.
Rothman said publicity over the Astley murder has been a “wake-up” call for many parents. “There has been an outpouring of concern and requests for information.”
In memory of the 18-year-old victim, the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund is working to promote safer teen dating. Both Rothman and the nonprofit organization are calling for legislation that would provide funding for education about dating violence in public schools.
Malcolm Astley, Lauren’s father, would like to see educational programs beginning in kindergarten that would focus on bullying in early elementary years and expand later to include dating abuse. He notes that children are “claiming their sexuality younger and younger,” making them more vulnerable to dating abuse.
“Girls and boys are objectifying each other more now. It leads to increased sex that isn’t quite handled easily or well and there are a lot of side effects,” he said in a telephone interview.
Experts suggest that parents think in terms of not one big “talk” with their teens about sex and intimate relationships, but a series of conversations that continue throughout their teens. Astley said parents need to understand that “control issues” won’t be visible at first, but will gradually accumulate during the course of the relationship. “Parents have to keep assessing as the relationship goes on,” he said.
Siegel, at Children’s Hospital, suggests broaching difficult topics by making the questions hypothetical. In other words, by saying “if this were happening, feel free to come to me,” or “if this were happening, here is where you could get more information or emergency services.”
In a 2008 national online survey posted on Loveisrespect.org, nearly half the 1,043 children age 11 to 14 queried said they had already been in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. One in three said they knew a friend who has had intercourse or oral sex.
“That says to me that we need to start talking about it early and often,” said Casey Corcoran, program director at Futures Without Violence in Boston, a nonprofit that works to end violence against women. “The first time you talk to your child about being in a healthy relationship shouldn’t be when they are already in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.”
Social media may amplify feelings of loss and humiliation that accompany a breakup.
The public exposure adds to the pressure. His organization teaches teens to take a “technology timeout.” Corcoran says, “They don’t have to swear off Facebook completely, but we tell them to give themselves some breathing room and commit to not posting anything about an ex-partner.”
Breakups are always awkward, but in an abusive relationship, they can be dangerous, said Colleen Armstrong, education program manager for Reach Beyond Domestic Violence, which provides services in 27 cities and towns in west suburban Boston.
“You want to be thinking about safety at all times,” she said, but especially in the 90-day period following a breakup. Teenagers need to know that it could be dangerous to see their abuser alone — no matter how remorseful he or she might seem. She encourages teens to let friends as well as parents know about their safety concerns, and if there is any evidence of stalking behavior, seek professional resources.
Jan Brogan can be reached at janbrogan