Breaking the cycle of violence

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- When was the last time you talked to your teenager about dating violence or what a healthy relationship is?

At the beginning, 8th grader Rae Anne described her new boyfriend Marcus as "very, very sweet to (her)." He sent flowers, love notes and gave her plenty of attention. Soon Marcus began telling her how to dress, so not to attract attention from other boys, and then he started to tell her how to act. Since Marcus was her first boyfriend, Rae Anne thought maybe this was normal.

Rae Anne's mother became worried about the changes in her daughter's confidence and warned her against continuing to date Marcus. The teen would later tell her mother that Marcus had bitten her, set her backpack on fire and pushed her down a stairway at school.

In the end, Rae Anne broke up with Marcus. His next girlfriend wouldn't be so fortunate. A few years passed and in 2003, Marcus, now sixteen and a football star at a high school in Austin, Texas, stabbed his girlfriend to death at school after she tried to break up with him.

According to Break the Cycle, the leading, national nonprofit organization addressing teen dating violence, 1 in 3, or 1.5 million, high school students in the U.S. will experience dating violence this year. Eighty percent of female victims will continue to date their abuser and only 33 percent will tell anyone. Since teens aren't talking about it, eight out of 10 parents believe teen dating violence is not a problem.

Dating violence is not only an American issue. In the U.K., 30 percent of teen girls suffer unwanted sex acts while dating and 25 percent experience violence according to recent research by the University of Bristol, the first study ever to look at the incidence and impact of teen dating violence in the U.K.

The results were shocking. One in six of the teen girls indicated they were in relationships where they had been pressured into sex and one in 16 said they had been raped. Twenty-five percent of girls reported being slapped, punched or beaten, and 20 percent of boys reported similar assaults.

Surely dating violence is something worth discussing before children reach adulthood, as 16-24 year-olds experience the highest rate of dating violence, triple the U.S. national average. So how early is too early to discuss dating violence? About 75 percent of eighth and ninth graders are already dating, and patterns of violent behavior in dating often begin between the ages of 12 and 18.

Last March, the 48th Force Support Squadron Family Advocacy Program spent the day with Lakenheath Middle School students discussing stress and conflict. Of the 75 students who participated, they identified relationship problems between their peers and between their parents among their top five stressors. They also spoke openly of being bullied by postings on social networking websites.

If teen dating violence is so common, why don't we hear more about it? One reason might be that recognizing abuse can be difficult, especially for teens who believe controlling, possessive and violent behavior is normal. Teens may not feel they can escape abuse or identify a safe adult to talk to. Teens may have concerns about their privacy, especially with adults obligated to report abuse to security forces, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator or FAP.

The experiences and effects of dating violence, whether or not discussed, eventually surface. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being, violent relationships put teens at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders and domestic violence later in life. The study, a collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated that being abused makes girls six times more likely to become pregnant and twice as likely to get a sexually transmitted disease. Half of teen victims of dating violence attempt suicide.

Teens have a right to safe relationships. Each semester, the Family Advocacy Outreach Managers and SARC talk to students at Lakenheath High School about dating violence and building healthy relationships.

In March, RAF Lakenheath will implement "Target Hardening," a class for youths 16 and older and adults aimed at teaching females to be more aware, and to defend themselves against violence. FAP and SARC are hoping to facilitate discussions with participants on how to make good choices about dating.

The rate of teen dating violence far exceeds other types of youth violence, and is triple the national rate of domestic violence. Help break the silence on this important issue by encouraging youth centers and schools to regularly discuss this topic in classrooms, and to create peer support groups for teens in violent relationships. To learn more about teen dating violence, contact Family Advocacy Program at DSN: 226-8070 or comm: 01638 528 070 or visit www.thesafespace.org.