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#RedFlags or #RelationshipGoals? - Understanding Teen Dating Abuse


Kristin Mitchell

Kristin Mitchell on her graduation day from St. Joseph's University.

In 2005, Kristin Mitchell was a young woman with a bright, promising future and a beautiful, generous spirit. A recent college graduate, Kristin had a close and communicative relationship with her family and a group of caring and supportive friends who looked out for her.


Fiercely independent, yet deeply empathetic, Kristin had discussed concerns about her relationship with her friends and her father. While there were recent issues she and her boyfriend were facing, she was understanding, forgiving, and felt confident that she could handle the situation.


Three weeks after her graduation, Kristin's boyfriend arrived at her apartment late in the evening to talk about things after he had become possessive and controlling regarding her time with friends.


That night, he stabbed Kristin over 50 times in her kitchen, killing her and leaving her family - and the community - reeling.


Mitchell speaks to a room of Kristin's peers at St. Joseph's University.

Kristin's father, Bill Mitchell, shared his experience of this horrifying ordeal in "When Dating Hurts," an account of Kristin's death and the events that followed. DVCCC was honored to sit down and discuss the book, Kristin, and dating abuse with Mitchell. You can see that interview here.


Mitchell discussed that if Kristin - or even he - had been more aware of the red flags and warning signs of abuse in relationships, this tragedy could have been avoided. In this, Kristin's death left a legacy of awareness and education, waking his community up to the reality of dating violence. If the world could lose someone as beautiful as Kristin to such a violent crime, they would need to pay closer attention. Thus, his mission to reach teens about dating abuse began.


Morgan McCaffery

Morgan McCaffery graduated from Nazareth Academy High School.

In early 2020, Morgan McCaffery, a recent high school graduate, had spent the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic organizing, assembling, and distributing care packages to distribute to local healthcare workers. She was known by friends, family, and her community as extremely generous, "always putting everyone before herself."


In June, Morgan had ended a year-long relationship. Friends and family were aware of this partner and had referred to him as abusive after seeing the two argue often. Shortly after the breakup, Morgan had asked a friend to come over because she had begun receiving threats from her ex-boyfriend and felt afraid.


In July, Morgan received a string of text messages and phone calls from her ex-boyfriend claiming that he was going to change and fix things. He told Morgan he really needed to talk to her and to meet him at a local train station to discuss their relationship.


That night, Morgan's ex-boyfriend stabbed her more than 30 times, killing her and reigniting the conversation about dating abuse in our area.


These mirrored tragedies, occurring fifteen years apart, illustrate how prevalent the issue of teen dating violence still is today.


A mural in tribute to Morgan McCaffery.

Considering physical, sexual, and psychological behaviors,

1 in 3 teens

regardless of gender identity, experience abuse from a dating partner.


What IS Teen Dating Abuse?

Definitions & Common Red Flags


As we at DVCCC know, abuse is a pattern of physical, psychological, sexual, and other behaviors that are used by an individual to establish and maintain power and control over their partner; however, many are unaware of how subtle and nuanced these behaviors can be. Abuse is most successful when it is able to go unnoticed, so abusive individuals work to make sure their behaviors seem rational and their partners feel confused.



We developed a handout that outlines dozens of unhealthy warning signs in relationships and we provide this for the students in every healthy dating program we provide.


When in our classroom sessions with local schools, we facilitate discussions about these behaviors: what their purpose is, how they actually look and feel in real life, and how we can manage them in the healthiest ways possible. When asked to identify some red flags that they have seen or experienced in their own lives, students identified almost 85% of the behaviors outlines on the handout.


Of the red flag behaviors that students identify, the behaviors they seem to witness and experience the most include:


  • Gaslighting - Doing things that hurt your feelings and expecting you to "get over it" or making you feel crazy; often saying "it was just a joke," "you're overreacting," and "it's not that big a deal."

  • Controlling behaviors - Believing that one person should be "in control" of the relationship and using jealousy as a way to control who you spend time with.

  • Crossing sexual boundaries - Pressuring you for sex or attempting to manipulate/guilt you into sexual behaviors by saying things like, "if you really loved me..." and "but all our friends..."

The one red flag that teens see the most, however, is technological abuse.


Technological Abuse:

How Teen Dating Violence is Going Digital

(Data from the Urban Institute)


Digital Abuse is:


Degrading -

using text and other communications to belittle victims over and over again


Embarrassing -

posting or sharing personal, intimate, or humiliating information about victims


Coercive -

pressuring victims to do things, often sexual, that they do not want to do


Controlling -

dominating and regulating social media and other digital presences and activities


Unavoidable -

technology follows us everywhere, so abusers have a way to access their victims nonstop: day and night


The number of teens affected by digital abuse is astonishing, as we have seen with not only our teens in Chester County and their responses to the Red Flag behaviors but also when we look at the nationwide data. According to the Urban Institute:


1 in 4 Teens are Harassed or Abused through Technology


Of those teens,

84% also experienced psychological abuse from their partner

52% also experienced physical abuse from their partner

32% experienced sexual coercion



Teens' Experiences of Digital/Technological Abuse:


"Used my social networking account without permission"

"Made me feel afraid when I didn't respond to calls or texts quick enough"

"Threatened, by text, to harm me, physically"

"Sent me so many messages that I started to feel unsafe"

"Spread rumors about me online or through text"

"Sent me unwanted sexual photos and messages to engage in sexual acts"

"Posted embarrassing photos of me online"

"Wrote nasty things about me on their social media page"

"Used information they saw on my social media pages to harass me"

"Sent threatening texts, DMs, and chats that made me feel scared"

"Pressured and threatened me to sex sexual photos of myself"

"Took videos of me and sent them to friends without permission"


Love is Respect developed this comprehensive guide to safety and boundaries with relationships and technology. From this, we wanted to remind teens that it is important to first understand your own digital boundaries before you can communicate these to your partner. A great start is to ask yourself:

  • Is it okay to tag you in posts or to check-in public places together?

  • Should we post our relationship status publicly?

  • Is it okay to follow or friend the other people in my life?

  • What are the expectations I have for my partner regarding communication via texting and social media?

  • Is it okay for us to use one another's devices? If so, when?

Expect that your partner may want to collaborate on creating digital boundaries for your relationship together. All boundaries and expectations in the relationship should be made with mutual respect. Expect that you will have to negotiate and compromise as you figure out the best arrangement for you both - and remember: your boundaries can change as your relationship evolves; just be sure to communicate these changes with your partner!


If you are leaving a controlling relationship and are concerned about digital or technological abuse following the relationship, check out Love is Respect's safety guide here.


Why?

This is a question that adult victims and survivors of abuse face far too often; the same is true for teens. Why?


Why would you BE with someone who abuses you?

Inexperience is a key factor in terms of teens ending up in unhealthy relationships. If we have never been in a romantic relationship before, we may have very little understanding of what is healthy, unhealthy, or even normal!


When teens look to norms and examples of love and romance, they look to three distinct examples:


Peers: Have my friends or peers experienced these behaviors in their relationships?

If 1 in 3 teens experiences abuse, there are likely to be unhealthy examples of behaviors being normalized around them.


Parents/Guardians: What do relationships look like in my home?

If a teen lacks role models of healthy love and romance at home, they normalize unhealthy or even abusive red flag behaviors.


Media: What representations of love and romance have I seen on television or in films?

The media that teens consume often provide and even romanticize unhealthy dating norms.



Media and Teen Dating Abuse


Social learning theory teaches us that media has a huge impact on developing our cultural and social norms. To further explore the topic of media portrayals of love and romance, DVCCC partnered with Dr. Lisa Huebner from West Chester University in a webinar exploring the unhealthy norms common in the media's representation of romance and how we can consume media with a more critical lens. You can check out that webinar here!


Some unhealthy dating norms/myths commonly portrayed in media that impact teens' expectations in relationships include:

  1. Stalking behavior, or not taking "no" for an answer, can be a cute and romantic way for a relationship to begin.

  2. Depending on the situation, manipulating and deceiving your partner can be acceptable.

  3. Cheating is forgivable and excusable.

  4. Screaming matches are sexy - it means there's passion in the relationship!

  5. It's okay to avoid talking about relationship issues; they'll work themselves out!

  6. Oversexualization of teen relationships. All teens are having sex and sometimes sexual relationships occur between teens and adults.

  7. Love conquers all. No matter what issues occur in a relationship, they can be overcome if you love each other enough!

It may seem obvious that these behaviors are unhealthy; however, television and films portray these behaviors in their representation of love and romance in comedies and dramas for teen consumption.



In exploring this topic, DVCCC created a TikTok account. We wanted to share examples of these media norms with teens and call them out for what they are: unhealthy! The number of teens who commented defending, excusing, and further romanticizing these norms only served to prove our point: teens believe these behaviors are okay because of the romantic representation of them. Some teens even became upset with us. Why would we want to "cancel" their favorite films and shows? In this, we want to make one important distinction:


We don't have to censor, "cancel," or avoid problematic media.

We can still consume our favorite films and television shows while remembering to see them for what they are: fantasy.


Watching our favorite shows or movies through a critical lens involves asking some key questions:

  1. Are there red flags in this relationship? Try to label them.

  2. Do the individuals involved in this relationship compromise? Are they willing to?

  3. Is each person in this relationship supported when they act outside the confines of their traditional gender role?

  4. Are individuals in the relationship willing and able to admit they are wrong? Do they offer a sincere apology for their actions without trying to justify or blame?

  5. What is their communication like? Does one person do the talking? Do they listen to each other?

  6. How are sex and sexual activity discussed? Is one person always the initiator?

Why would you STAY with someone who abuses you?

As common a question as to why would someone end up in an abusive relationship is why would someone stay in one? While we know that abuse involves a lot of psychological manipulation and control, making it difficult for a victim to identify what is occurring, we also have to understand that teens have a unique set of reasons why they may stay in an unhealthy situation or relationship:

  1. Lack of information/understanding of healthy vs. unhealthy behaviors in relationships.

  2. Relationship with parents/guardians: Does the teen have a trusting, mutually respectful relationship with the adults in their life where they feel safe communicating about dating?

  3. Fear of social consequences: "Whose side will our friends take? Will I lose popularity at school?"

  4. Embarrassment/pride: "What will people think of me that I was a victim of abuse?"

  5. Loss of independence: Some parents/guardians try to protect their teens by restricting their access to cellphones/social media and keeping them from social situations where they may see an unhealthy dating partner; thus, the teen may not want to expose the situation for fear of losing their independence.

  6. Isolation: The partner may have isolated the teen from/damaged their relationship with their friends.

  7. Distrust of adults or others: Adults may have previously made decisions on the teen's behalf that they did not agree with, or friends may have shared private information about the relationship.

  8. Desire to stay in the relationship: "I still really like this person. They are really attractive. I want to be with them."

  9. Protecting the abuser: Teens may not want their abuser to face repercussions, especially legal ones. The abuser may have even threatened their partner to protect themselves.

What is a HEALTHY relationship?


Students at Bayard Rustin High School identified these key characteristics of healthy relationships.

Are you in a healthy relationship?

Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel safe and comfortable with my partner? Can I be fully myself?

  • Does my partner listen to me and value my opinions and thoughts?

  • Does my partner support what I want to do in life?

  • Is my partner truthful with me?

  • Does my partner always try to understand how I feel and where I'm coming from?

  • Is my partner supportive of me having other friends?

  • Does my partner trust me - especially without me having to prove it?

  • Does my partner treat me as an equal?

  • Does my partner respect my family?

  • Does my partner understand and respect my need for alone time or time with friends/family?

  • Does my partner make me laugh?


These characteristics come from DVCCC's Loves Me/Loves Me Not bookmarks provided by Soroptimist International of Phoenixville. If you are interested in obtaining these bookmarks, email the Director of Education Programs at arayburn@dvcccpa.org.


You can take the "Is My Relationship Healthy?" Quiz here!


What can we do about Teen Dating Abuse?



As teens and adult allies in the movement to end relationship abuse, we may find ourselves asking: how can we prevent this from happening?


As a parent, adult, or peer, you can be a supportive force in a victim's life by remembering:


Non-judgemental Attitude: Be open and understanding. Judgment and support do not go hand-in-hand.

Validation: What happens to teens in violent relationships is never their fault and their feelings need to be validated. Let them know that these behaviors are not normal and model what healthy behaviors look like.

Safety & Trust: Teens need to feel safe and know they can trust you to keep their information confidential while also not deciding for them or telling them what to do.

Provide Choices: Ask teens to brainstorm options of what they want to do with the relationship.

Respect & Support: Respect their feelings, experiences, autonomy, and maturity.

Empowerment: Empower teens to help themselves by reminding them of their self-worth.


Amelia Rayburn-Pizzica, BA, CDA is DVCCC's Director of Education Programs. If you'd like more information about the education and resources DVCCC provides, you can connect with Amelia via email at arayburn@dvcccpa.org.

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