When first love turns violent


One in 11 teens has been the victim of physical dating violence. One in four teens report being emotionally or verbally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. The danger to teens in these high-risk relationships often goes unnoticed, even by the adults who surround them.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a ceremony is performed in memory of victims of domestic violence. For every name engraved, thousands of others may be living in silence, many of them under 18.

"One time after a fight, he grabbed my arm and you could see four black and blue marks from his fingers," Genna Willey said.

At age 17, Willey's first love became verbally and physically abusive. When she tried to break up, her boyfriend became enraged.

"He strangled me against the wall, [and] put his hands against my neck," Willey said. "Then he punched me in the leg, he kicked me, [and] he punched me in the head to knock me out."

Willey managed to break away. A friend called Willey's family, who then called police and rushed to their daughter's aid.

"I really didn't think that someone of that age was capable of putting harm to someone else that they thought they loved," said Karen Willey, Genna's mother.
Jennifer Storm is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Witness Assistance Program. She says signs of domestic violence are often subtle, especially in teens.

"It's so hard to decipher what is normal adolescence angst, and what is something that could be a red flag," Storm explained.

Parents should watch for changes in a teens' mood, sudden weight loss, and isolation. Also, changes in social media habits could provide important clues. An abuser may force a victim to limit interaction with friends: in person, on the phone, or online.

"Whether it's verbal, mental, or physical, abuse is abuse and it can only escalate and I wish I would have known," Willey said.

There is a growing national effort to educate young people about dating violence.  At least 19 states have mandatory dating violence awareness programs in public schools.  Florida is one of them with a component included in health education for grades 7 through 12.  Legislation was introduced this year in Georgia, which is still pending.

Additional Information:

What is Teen Dating Violence?
Teen dating violence is defined as the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship, as well as stalking. It can occur in person or electronically, between a current or former dating partner. Dating violence can also be described as:

  • Relationship Abuse
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Relationship Violence
  • Dating Abuse
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Domestic Violence

Why Does Dating Violence Happen?
Communicating with your partner, managing anger and jealousy, and treating others with respect are a few ways to keep relationships healthy and non-violent. Teens receive messages about how to behave from many sources including friends, adults in their lives, and the media. These examples could suggest violence in a relationship is okay. Violence is related to certain risk factors. Risk of having unhealthy relationships increase for teens who:

  • Believe it's okay to use threats or violence to get their way.
  • Use alcohol or drugs.
  • Can't manage anger or frustration.
  • Hang out with violent peers.
  • Have multiple sexual partners.
  • Have a friend involved in dating violence.
  • Are depressed or anxious.
  • Have learning difficulties and other problems at school.
  • Don't have parental supervision and support.
  • Witness violence at home or in the community.
  • Have a history of aggressive behavior or bullying.

Dating violence can be prevented when teens, families, organizations, and communities work together to implement effective prevention strategies.
(Source: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/teen_dating_violence.html)