February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. You may think this has little to do with your everyday life, but it is an area where many of us can have important influence.
Perhaps you are the parent, grandparent, friend, coach, piano teacher or neighbor to a teen. That relationship allows you to have a tremendous influence, which might have a powerful effect on teens’ lives, including their romantic relationships.
Abusive relationships involve two people who look to the relationship to feel better about themselves or raise their self-esteem. For the controller, it feels good that the other person is compliant, goes along with whatever they might want and doesn’t present opposing views or wishes. For the controlled person, it feels good to belong to someone and to be an important person in someone else’s life.
Dating violence, like domestic violence, is a dynamic where one person has power over another and uses controlling tactics to maintain that power. Sometimes the tactics involve physical acts of violence or intimidation; but more often, the tactics utilize emotional control that perpetuates the power dynamic.
These relationships are often described as “walking on eggshells” environments, in which fear is used to control. This can be a very subtle dynamic, and often the victim does not realize his or her behaviors are motivated by fear.
One teen I worked with said she thought she wanted to do the same activities as her boyfriend, but upon further examination, she became aware that she was afraid not to. As a result, she talked herself into liking what he liked and wanting what he wanted. She had lost touch with her own authentic wishes and needs. Some teens I have worked with have problems with being disappointed by others. These teens feel unimportant or disrespected when a dating partner doesn’t do what they think they should.
Each of these teens is looking to feel like they matter and feel valued. These are universal human desires. The goal of our attachment experience with our primary caregiver is to create these deep feelings that stay in the neuro-pathways of our brains and in our muscles. At each stage of our development, we seek reinforcement that we matter, we are valuable and we are enough.
This becomes particularly tricky for teenagers because as a part of their normal development, they often pull away from their trusted attachment figures and seek these feelings in their relationships with their peers. It’s a set-up for relationships that are less about connection and more about a temporary self-esteem boost.
So, think about a teen in your life. What could you do to let this teen know he or she matters? The best way I know to do this is to be truly interested in them. Being interested is a unique skill. It involves being curious without judgment. You might be curious about what teens’ interests are, what movies they like, what apps they use or what makes them laugh. You can be curious about who they like and who they don’t, and why.
These can be small conversations that create a sense of safety when the teen is with you. It’s these nonjudgmental, non-advice-giving conversations that help teens know their own value and give them a sense of mattering in the world. When they do, they enter into dating relationships looking for honest connection. They already have their self-esteem.
Ellen Yashinsky Chute – contributing writer
Ellen Yashinsky Chute, LMSW, ACSW, is senior director of behavioral health services at Jewish Family Service.