Each year, more than 1.5 million high school students, mostly women, experience physical abuse in a dating situation.

Only 33 percent of teens in an abusive relationship ever tell anyone about the abuse.

These statistics from loveisrespect.org were shared by moderator Susan McNeil, director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation, in a panel discussion on teen dating abuse and violence titled “Love Equals Respect,” Jan. 12, at St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, Elm Grove.

Ann Rauh, co-president of St. Mary’s Visitation Christian Women, said the group offered the program “to ensure the safety of our children as they grow into young adults and beyond in this culture in which we live.”

Panelists included Melinda Skrade, president of Pius XI Catholic High School, Suzanne Lovinus, counselor at Pius XI Catholic High School, Jessie Trauth, director of shelter and transitional living at the Women’s Center in Waukesha, Virginia Dubinski, school counselor at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Kris Crawley, executive director and founder of Life’s Connection in Mukwonago, and Christina Rarick, detective with the Waukesha County Sheriff’s office.

On the front lines, and often the first responders in teen emotional crises, these women shared their experiences of working with teens as they navigate their first dating experiences.  

The panel answered questions on a variety of teen dating topics such as the difference between a healthy relationship and a potentially violent one, how social media impacts dating, how to help a child in an abusive situation and what resources are available to help parents.

Healthy relationships are based on trust, Lovinus explained, adding, “Being in a relationship should feel like being with your best friend.”

Teens should feel physically, emotionally and spiritually comfortable with their dating partner, she said.

The panelists agreed that conflict is a normal part of having a relationship. However, many teens don’t know how to handle conflict because their parents hide their arguments from them.

“Parents who model positive communication and conflict resolution offer their children a lifetime gift,” Skrade said.
Some teens need some help framing the language to use to resolve a conflict. Skrade said it is important to remember teens have only been reading for about eight to 10 years so they may need help learning the language of conflict resolution.

At Divine Savior Holy Angels, Dubinski counsels teen girls on a variety of relationship concerns. She said teens are connected to social media in a way that parents never experienced. Dubinski said there is no break from their connection with friends because they are always on their cell phones checking Instagram, Snapchat and texts. Teens need downtime from their peers and dating partners.

One red flag of an unhealthy relationship is someone exerting control over their partner, for example, asking for their passwords and checking their emails and texts. Someone who can’t respect boundaries doesn’t make a good choice for a partner, she said.

Lovinus said people tend to only post photos and stories about their happiest times. Teens often feel isolated and excluded when looking at social media. Further, teens worry about what their dating partner might post about them online.

Dubinski suggested parents limit children’s cell phone time and asking their children to educate them on what apps they use on social media.

If a teen is in an abusive relationship, either physically or emotionally, there are resources to help. They should find someone they can trust, such as a school counselor, favorite teacher, youth leader at church or an anonymous hotline.

Skrade assured that all of these people feel a “moral obligation” to help and they will do all they can to find the resources and guide the teen.

When a teen is being abused by a dating partner, Skrade explained, often the teen doesn’t go to their parents because the teen fears getting in trouble and of losing their love.

Parents should not ask their teen what did the teen do to contribute to the problem. She advises parents not to get angry. Counselors are trained not to react, but just to listen; parents should do the same. When parents get angry they are re-victimizing the victim.

Dubinski suggested if a parent suspects that an unhealthy or abusive relationship is going on, he or she should have a conversation with the teen. There is no right or wrong thing to say, but it is important to express that you care about them and you want to help, she advised.

“The teen may pretend they don’t hear what you have to say, but they get the message,” Dubinski said. Parents can call the school counselor and ask the counselor to meet with the student.

An audience member suggested that parents offer basics in dating. He recently asked his son about his girlfriend. His son didn’t even know basic information about the girlfriend’s family life. Teens should understand that dating is a time to explore a person’s background, interests and values through conversation.

Another audience member suggested a book, “Why True Love Waits: The Definitive Book on How to Help your Kids Resist Sexual Pressure,” by Josh McDowell.

Panelists offered tips for teens going to dances, sporting events, concerts and out with friends. Teens should have a plan in place to text a friend or a parent to pick them up if they are in an uncomfortable situation, they advised.

Teens should have a safety person at a dance or other event so they can keep an eye on each other. Parents should know where their child is going and with whom.  

“Give them the tools; teens like to have a plan,” Skrade said.

Teens should know they have rights. Crawley tells the teens she counsels, “Understand that you have the right to refuse a date. You have the right to say no in regards to intimacy.”

Lovinus advised, “Remember, there is always hope. If the horrific does happen, trauma counselors are available to help. They will counsel the teen respectfully and people can move on and have a happy life.”