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Perils of teen dating: Many teens are in abusive relationships but few speak up

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February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. This is the first in a four-part special series from KTAR News 92.3 FM about the perils of teen dating.

PHOENIX — More than a third of teens report being in an abusive relationship but only a few ever tell anyone about it.

The American Psychological Association found that 41% of girls and 37% of boys between 14 and 20 years old report experiencing physical, sexual or emotional abuse in a relationship.

“When someone is in a relationship that is abusive, coercive or manipulative, their behavior might change in ways that you’re not accustomed to,” said Shelly Ward, victim services administrator for the Mesa Police Department.

Victims may become more isolated and withdrawn.

Ward said a big reason is abusers want control, and they want to become the only person they’re spending time with. And when they’re not together, abusers are constantly monitoring where they are and who they’re with.

“The person may be texting them or contacting them multiple times a day in ways that, honestly, are very inappropriate,” she said. “There’s no reason that someone needs to text you 30 times a minute.”

Isolation and excessive texting are just two forms of abuse teens may face. The advocacy group “Love is Respect” notes abuse also can include unwanted sexual contact, threats, insults, humiliation, intimidation and stalking.

Lauren Reed, assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University, said a relationship becomes abusive when there’s a repeated pattern of abuse.

“We define an abusive relationship as a pattern of controlling, abusive, harmful behaviors that are meant to gain power and control over a dating partner,” she said. “This abuse can happen both in person and online.”

She added girls, youth of color and members of the LGBTQ community are most at risk for abusive relationships.

In some cases, teens in abusive relationships also may face physical abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide are physically abused by someone they’re dating each year.

But only about a third ever speak up.

“There are a lot of reasons for that,” Ward said. “Part of that could be fear – being afraid and not sure what to do.”

She said some teens also may not tell anyone about the abuse because they think that what they’re experiencing is normal while others may fear their lives could be in danger if they try to leave.

Reed said most teens who do speak out tell their friends about the abuse instead of an adult.

“That tells us a couple things,” she said. “One, we need to talk about it more so that more teens feel comfortable talking about teen dating violence. Two, we need to make sure that teens know how to talk to a friend about teen dating violence.”

“Third, when a teen does come to an adult, that is a really huge opportunity to be supportive and to encourage more disclosure,” she said.

Reed added she recommends anyone who’s aware of a teen in an abusive relationship to “communicate that it’s not their fault and that you’re concerned about their safety.”

If you’re a teen in an abusive relationship or know one who is, you can call or text bloom365 at 888-606-HOPE (4673) or Teen Lifeline at 602-248-TEEN (8336). You can also call the National Teen Dating Violence Hotline at 866-331-9474.

Arizona open and hiring: If you’re looking for job openings, visit ktar.com/arizonahiring.

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