Missing the Signs...

How the Media Fails to Recognize Teen DV

Blog Post by Sarah Ross, Children’s Advocate and Outreach Specialist
February 19, 2016

On February 12th, two 15-year-old girls - who were in a dating relationship - died in an Arizona high school. Witnesses say that morning, one of the young women came to school with a firearm and killed her girlfriend before committing suicide.

In a previous post, I wrote that parents often miss the warning signs of teen dating violence. It seems that the media falls into a similar trap. When writing about school shootings and homicides via firearm, the media tends to emphasize mental instability, social alienation, or troubles at home and de-emphasizes the connection of these shootings to dating violence.

Firearms are frequently used in violent intimate partner relationships to threaten, injure, and kill. Over seventy percent of murder-suicides involve intimate partners (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence). A recent study in California found that one third of domestic violence shelter residents reported being threatened or harmed with a firearm (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence). TESSA advocates assess the lethality of their clients’ situations by asking if they’ve ever been threatened or hurt by a firearm.

If threatening with a firearm is a well-known method of control and violence in abusive relationships, and if most murder-suicides occur in domestic abuse relationships, why is the Arizona shooting not being talked about in the context of domestic abuse and dating violence?

There are a couple reasons why this might be the case. One might be the well-documented tendency for media to inadequately investigate the role of dating violence in shootings by teenagers. Second, the fact that the young women were in a same-sex relationship seems to have contributed to the media’s portrayal of the incident.

Researcher Jessie Klein found that in many school shootings (almost all of which are murder-suicides), shooters sexually harass and threaten victims before their attacks, especially targeting those who reject romantic advances. Klein found that parents, teachers, and peers often dismiss or ignore these threats, not understanding the implications or possible dangers of this form of dating violence. Klein found, however, that many school shooters (the majority of whom are young men) target young women who have broken up with or rejected them—in fact, the Columbine shooters complained about “relentless rejection by girls.” In 1997, Andrew Wurst of Edinboro, PA killed one teacher, injured another, and injured two female students, one of whom was his ex-girlfriend. When she broke up with him, he’d said, “Then I’ll have to kill you.” His other target was a girl who laughed when he asked her out to a dance. Other shooters cited jealousy or territorial behavior as a reason for behaving violently.

Though so many of these shootings involve shooters who demonstrate patterns and traits associated with abusive behavior—manipulation, coercion, dramatic jealousy—they are almost never framed as being connected to dating violence. One classmate of the young women in Arizona said that two girls were about to break up—one of the most high-risk times for victims in a violent relationship. There is not enough information about the shooting to say with certainty that there were abusive dynamics present in the relationship, but gun violence, when used in an intimate partner relationship, must be recognized as a kind of domestic abuse.

The media may also not be framing the tragedy in terms of dating abuse because of the sex of the victims. When the school re-opened after the shooting, a small group of anti-gay protestors stood outside Independence High School with a megaphone, shouting at students leaving their classes. This stigma and vitriol surrounding same-sex relationships may contribute to the media’s reluctance to frame this as dating violence.

In addition, the vast, vast, majority of shooters are male, and the majority of perpetrators in violent relationships are men. In murder-suicide events, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators and women are overwhelmingly the victims. However, abusive dynamics can occur in any relationship, regardless of the gender or sex of each partner. When these patterns and violent behaviors occur, we need to be able to identify the threat.

It is possible that previous shootings could have been prevented if community members had noted and taken seriously the violent, controlling romantic tendencies of shooters. In order for that to happen, we need to be talking about dating violence. We need to talk about the prevalence of dating violence, and we need to be able to identify its warning signs—being possessive isn’t romantic, and being manipulative isn’t just a sign of immaturity.

This tragedy is a sobering reminder during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month that, as a culture, we are woefully ill-equipped to identify teen dating violence and respond to situations before they become deadly. For more information on the warning signs of teen dating violence, visit LoveIsRespect.com.


How to Talk About Teen Dating Violence

Blog Post by Sarah Ross, Children’s Advocate and Outreach Specialist
February 12, 2016

Talking to your children about teen dating violence can be a challenge. “Love is Respect” found that 81% of parents don’t believe that teen dating violence is an issue, or don’t know whether or not it is an issue, and therefore do not speak to their teens about it. However, whether or not parents choose to speak to their children about dating violence, teens will likely still be exposed to violent or unhealthy relationship dynamics, if not in their own relationships, in the relationships of their friends and peers.

This post will explore some of the warning signs of teen dating violence and give some tips for how to have difficult conversations about dating violence.

High school and college are known as times that young people explore themselves and what it means to be in a relationship. It is a critical time for the development of self-esteem, and many create patterns in their relationships and learn what is normal for them. Teens who experience dating violence during their formative years are at a much higher risk for further domestic violence or sexual assault, as well as substance abuse and eating disorders. The sooner an unhealthy or abusive relationship can be detected, the lower the likelihood of lifelong detrimental impacts. 

In abusive relationships, the abuser will often isolate, put-down, or attempt to control their partner through jealousy, constant checking in, and belittlement of emotions. These controlling tactics—which might include demanding access to social media accounts or text messages, or demanding that the relationship be prioritized above all other friendships or activities—sometimes are the early signs that a relationship will escalate into being physically abusive.

In my experience presenting at middle and high schools, young people often confuse jealousy and control with romance, or see doing things like giving their partner access to their social media accounts the price to pay to “prove” that they are trustworthy. Other manipulation tactics, such as a partner saying, “I don’t know what I’d do if you left me,” or “If you really loved me you would…” are similarly seen as romantic. 

These statements eliminate the partner’s ability to check in with themselves and their own boundaries—the speaker’s emotions are already positioned as the most important in the relationship. When this happens, it is easy to default to a pattern where the wants and needs of your partner become more important than your own.  The result is that the bedrock of a healthy relationship, good and honest communication, can’t truly exist. l impacts. 

In healthy relationships, partners feel as if they have equal say, that they can have independent interests and friendships, and that they are supported. These partners have fun together, and respect each other’s emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries. They trust one another to disagree respectfully, and don’t feel as though they are walking on eggshells.

If a teen is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, some of the warning signs might include:

  • A marked change in self-confidence, interests, grades, physical appearance, or personality. 
  • Taking responsibility for all the problems in the relationship, constantly making excuses for their partner. 
  • Spending the majority of the time just with their partner, avoiding other relationships. 
  • Constantly needing to check in with their partner, appearing nervous if they are not able to do so. 
  • Being subject to public put-downs or insults. 
  • Rarely getting to choose what they do with their partner, where they go, or who they are with. 
  • Making riskier decisions, like engaging in self-harm or substance abuse.

Talking to someone who might be displaying these signs, or just talking about dating violence in general, can be difficult, especially because teens may be defensive,
protective, or feel misunderstood. Here are some tips for those tough conversations:

  • Jessica Mars, TESSA’s Children’s Program Manager, suggests that before the conversation you make sure you’re in a place that is both physically and emotionally safe. Be aware of your own triggers, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and remember that your priority is to hear from your child, to provide a safe and nurturing space, and to ultimately keep them out of danger.
  • She also suggests that you make the space comfortable for them. Most teens do not want to sit face to face when sharing feelings. Take a walk or a drive, ensuring you are sitting beside them. Don’t force eye contact. In addition, take the lead initiating the conversation. This shows the child that it is safe to talk about it and that they are not alone in sharing their feelings and thoughts.
  • Though the conversation may become emotional or challenging, try to stay regulated and calm, and use an even tone of voice. 
  • You might start by asking some broader questions and seeing how your teen responds. Perhaps ask them how their relationship is going, what they like about it, what they might not like about it. You may then be able to lead the conversation in a way that allows you to express some of the things you notice. Do your best to avoid sounding judgmental, and simply state the changes and events you have noticed. Give your child plenty of time to respond. Ask more questions if you think it will help your child see if they feel like they lack choice or respect in the relationship. Talk to your child about how all relationships can have components that are healthy, unhealthy, and abusive, but the good parts of a relationship never excuse or make up for the unsafe or scary parts.
  • If your child does not respond to this conversation, back off. Give them time to process and come back to you. If and when they do, allow them to feel all the contradictions—they might love this person and be afraid of them. Let your child know that if they don’t feel that they can communicate their wants or needs without ramification, this is not a relationship they should be in. 
  • Help your child plan how they can safely create distance from their partner. It might be difficult for them to end a relationship with someone they see constantly, for example. Do they have friends they can enlist to accompany them to lunch and afterschool plans? Is changing their class schedule an option? Reach out to resources in the school’s counseling office or at TESSA for more ideas. If you believe your child might be in imminent danger, immediately seek help from a counselor and disallow interaction with the partner. 
  • Ultimately, your job is to listen, validate, give resources, and help them realize that they deserve loving, trusting relationships. If a teen comes to you with concerns, you should believe them, validate their experience, let them know that the violence is not their fault, and help them safety plan and find resources.

Resources to share with teens:

Are you in a Healthy Relationship? Quiz

Am I a Good Partner? Quiz


Why Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month Matters

Blog Post by Sarah Ross, Children’s Advocate and Outreach Specialist
February 1, 2016

It wasn’t until years after their relationship ended that I realized that one of my best friends since kindergarten, Ariana, had been in an abusive relationship for most of high school.

I had seen her boyfriend in drunken, jealous rages. I sat with Ariana as he left her messages threatening to kill himself if she broke up with him. I received barrages of texts from him that were alternately pleading, incoherent, and threatening. And I hadn’t realized it was abusive—dramatic, maybe. I brushed it off as the inevitable result of two passionate personalities in love.

At the beginning, their relationship was giddy and all-consuming. Ariana and I spent hours analyzing their texts and orchestrating chance encounters. We watched movies, ate pizza, and went for hikes as a group. When things got bad, Ariana lost a worrying amount of weight and stopped spending time with anyone but him. It felt like a betrayal, like they were both selfishly choosing to disturb the delicate equilibrium of our high school social ecosystem.

The end of the relationship was long, painful, and—I can now see—very dangerous. It was not an end that I had the vocabulary to understand. Why were they being so dramatic? Why did she keep spending time with him? Why did she keep roping me into these situations that felt so heavy, so wrong, so adult? Why did they have to participate in a relationship that left their friend group feeling awkward and uncomfortable? Much of our time was devoted to deliberately ignoring the bizarre texts and screaming matches. We never talked about the time they got in a fight at a party and he drove away drunk, refusing to hand over his keys, refusing rides home. Instead, we favored social stability and comfort.

It wasn’t until we were in college that I realized the impact of this relationship on Ariana. His name came up in conversation, and she revealed that when she thought about him, her body froze and she felt disgusted, ashamed, and afraid. She was terrified of running into him in our small town. She also said that she might never feel a love that powerful for anyone again.

Now, I avoid talking about this relationship with her. I feel so guilty that no one could—or wanted—to see the pain and danger that she was in. I now realize how alone she was when things got scary, when she faced something she was never prepared to face. I now realize how many opportunities there were for adults and peers alike to confront the situation, to let Ariana know that she was not alone and didn’t deserve what was happening.

I wish I’d known that emotional abuse is abuse. I wish I’d understood that it often takes a person up to 7 tries to leave an abusive partner. I wish I’d known that social comfort is not worth someone dealing with the trauma of a high school relationship for the rest of their life. I wish I’d known that people can be in love and in danger at the same time.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Nearly 1.5 million high school students, like Ariana, experience physical abuse from a dating partner every year. One in three adolescents in the U.S. will be a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. And every year, millions of high school students, like me, ignore the warning signs of intimate partner violence until it is too late.

In February, and always, it is important to have conversations with each other, with the young people in our lives, and with service providers and professionals about consent, the dynamics of a healthy teen relationships, and red flag warnings in relationships. It is the only way to prevent teens and young people from establishing unhealthy or abusive dating patterns that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

Throughout the month of Teen DV Month, TESSA will be releasing information in the form of blog posts and news blasts about the importance of talking about teen dating violence, and providing information and skills for students, parents, and community members to provide preventative and ongoing education and support.

If you have questions or are concerned about yourself or someone else, please feel free to contact a TESSA advocate at any time.


Love is Respect provides peer mentors 24/7 online, by text and by phone for youth and young adults.


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