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Shielding children from teen dating violence

When she was 12, Maya Henry from Los Angeles rode the bus to and from school almost every day. Even as a preteen Maya knew the school bus was not a safe place for her.

“That’s a place where I’ve been sexually assaulted more than once,” said Henry at an EMS briefing on Teen Dating Violence (TDV), “and so that’s a place where I don’t think joy can ever exist in that space. “

 “The thing about violence,” added Maya, now 16, “is that it robs you of your innocence forever.”

Maya Henry shared her experience on a panel of youth survivors and activists at a Feb 24 EMS briefing on perspectives about TDV. They described how teens were caught in a maelstrom of confusion created by social media, an unprecedented pandemic, and a lack of awareness of positive relationships.

The statics are bleak

A teen dating violence survey reported that only 33% of adolescents in America who experienced sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional dating abuse, ever told anyone about their abusive relationships. Almost 81% of parents surveyed believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know it’s an issue.

The CDC reports that “26% of women and 15% of men who were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime first experienced these or other forms of violence by that partner before age 18.”

Young people today navigate a dating landscape quite different from their parent’s generation, leaving both teens and parents completely confused about how to handle dating and relationships, especially when things go wrong. Teen dating violence is more common and harmful than we understand.

What is Teen Dating Violence (TDV)?

Teen dating violence can take place in person, online, or through technology. Physical violence typically represents it but it also includes sexual violence, non-consensual touching, sharing pictures (sexual or not) without permission, psychological aggression including mental or emotional control, name-calling, teasing and stalking.

The CDC reports that some teens are at greater risk than others. “Female students experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence than male students. Students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) or those who were unsure of their gender identity experienced higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence compared to students who identified as heterosexual.”

Teens who suffer dating abuse have long-term consequences like depression, anxiety, alcoholism, eating disorders, promiscuity, thoughts of suicide, and violent behavior. CDC studies show that teen dating violence profoundly impacts lifelong health, opportunity, and well-being. Unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime.

Toxic Masculinity

At the briefing, Ana Campos, a 17-year-old youth speaker for a domestic violence shelter based in south Orange County remarked on the culture of toxic masculinity among young men who think they are better than women and young girls. “I think there’s definitely this superiority that they feel in themselves.”  

Toxic masculinity is an issue, admits Armaan Sharma, a high school sophomore from Fremont, at the briefing. “People like to romanticize abusive relationships or name-calling, especially for women. When a lot of males congregate, it definitely makes it like there’s a sort of peer pressure that to rule you need to seem like the dominant, like an alpha male. And I think one way that a lot of youth accomplish that is by being demeaning towards women or kind of making them seem a lot better.”

Dating in the South Asian culture

Many immigrant South Asian parents have never dated and have had an arranged marriage themselves. They have only been in a relationship with one person, their spouse. Understandably, talking about dating makes them very uncomfortable. 

There’s a stigma around young folks dating. It’s viewed as something that needs to be hidden, whether or not the relationship is healthy. “Folks can’t know about it,” Mullai Sampath, a Prevention Advocate at Narika, told India Currents. “Within the South Asian community – a big part of abuse is isolation.” So a teen won’t be able to express their feelings if there are abusive patterns in a relationship, nor do they have a safe, trusted person in their family to go to for good advice.” 

“Dating is such a taboo in South Asian cultures. Although Indian parents in America are generally much more open to these concepts, dating and intimate relationships are still something that is so sparsely discussed with youth” said Sharma.

In an interview with India Currents, Shailaja Dixit, the executive director of Narika advised parents to start this journey from a place of curiosity instead of judgment. “Getting curious about what our youth are doing, to change from a place of fear to a place of compassion. This shift in perspective leads to growth because you are learning without fear – because you fear only that which you don’t know.”

“As parents, we have to recognize, regardless of whether we are first generation, or second generation – the next generation lives in a different reality,” she added. “And cultures and traditions, while they serve to root us, can also serve to box us if they are not allowed to remain fluid,” said Dixit 

Lack of communication in intergenerational households

The lack of communication in South Asian families who often live in intergenerational households, leaves the second generation more paralyzed and trapped. 

“South Asian people, in general, are uniquely affected by violence in the sense that it is an intergenerational issue because of the lack of conversation,” said Sharma, so they don’t learn the tools necessary to build healthy relationships.

“It’s more complicated for youth growing up here, because of all that exists in terms of the violence, the social media, the media’s portrayal of it, the technology that exists, and then the intergenerational immigrant connection, and their understanding of what culture is,” Dixit explained.

Social media, teens and relationships

All the panelists agreed that sex-ed classes being taught in schools are not doing enough to teach teenagers about positive relationships and the signs of dating abuse. 

Campos said, “I think part of the reason so much domestic violence happens in teens is that they don’t know what the red flags or the green flags are. And if it’s not taught at home, or if it’s not taught in schools, how are they supposed to know?” 

Teens go into relationships knowing about biology, but not psychology, Sampath commented.

Relying on social media hinders the fight against teen dating violence, added Sharma. “The first is that it creates these misconceptions about relationships because on social media, you’re only going to see the good parts. They feel lonely because of that, and they feel I don’t have this relationship, I want this relationship. And that can have some serious mental health issues. The second would be that a lot of content – media like Netflix – romanticizes traits of toxic relationships, romanticizes manipulation or romanticizes, like controlling behaviors.” 

“The technology that we have right now is exacerbating it,” stated Dixit. There are so many ways to now track and follow the person who you’re dating that didn’t exist earlier.”

South Asian teens and a mental health crisis

The increasing trend in mental health issues among South Asian teens also impacts teen dating violence said Sharma. At home, teens face pressure about school, relationships, and their daily lives. It affects their mental health because they may feel disrespected and unheard.

“I feel like that pressure kind of builds to a point where it’s much harder for South Asian teams to talk to their parents about any issues that they might be having.”

“If the youth are disappearing into their rooms, if they’re constantly feeling judged if every conversation turns into a confrontation versus sharing”, it becomes very hard to communicate,” Dixit remarked.

Adults can change the paradigm

In Narika’s youth workshops, Sampath hears that parents stifle teens going through relationship issues with comments like “you’re young, you’ll have like other partners as you grow up. Your whole life is ahead of you.” 

Older people, especially in Indian, South Asian cultures, believe their opinions are valid, adds Sampath, but that’s not necessarily always true.

“Mocking, minimizing, not paying attention” when a child says a friend is not talking to them or says something that really hurts, “trivializes the teen’s experience,” said Sampath.

Dixit concurred. “We minimize our children’s social life or their emotional connections. We take their academic achievements very seriously. However, when it comes to their friendships, their social connections, their social turmoils, their attention, and their attractions, we don’t take them seriously. Whereas relationships are very important to them, actually extremely critical for them forming the blueprints with which they’re going to look at adult life.”

“We’ve got to kind of stay away from ageism.” 

The upbringing in the South Asian household tends not to foster autonomy, but to foster a cycle of dependency on the elders, noted Sampath. “It really does make it harder for someone to fully actualize and become their own person.”

Control is not love

If parents tell their children what to do, young people are never going to recognize that control is not love, said Dixit. She urges parents to take their teens’ relationships seriously and help them regulate it.

“Then they have no sense of their own personal boundaries, or a sense of I have a right to my safety and my body and my and my space, and then they become that much more susceptible to somebody else inserting control on them, and saying, That’s love.”

Narika’s prevention program for Asian communities

Teens need safe spaces and enough safe adults to support them in a crisis. At Narika a unique program being developed targets South Asian immigrant parents and caregivers to do just that. 

Sampath explained that in multi-generational households, just communicating with a child isn’t enough, especially with multiple adults in the household giving parenting advice.

“Our program will be culturally informed, and have parents know that we’re not here to judge them if they’ve made mistakes, “ said Sampath. It’s designed to offer a safe space where it’s okay to admit mistakes, “but in the process, do not omit yourself from having any form of accountability.”

Dixit reiterated that self-compassion is key to the process.

“We want to acknowledge the vulnerability and the imperfection of parents. There has to be self-compassion for parents to recognize that we ourselves are human, we are overcoming our own complexities, anxieties, trauma, and what we cannot give to ourselves, we will not be able to give to our children.”

Adults must acknowledge their mistakes. “ If we don’t role model stepping back when a boundary is violated, then how do we expect our youth to recognize all that when they go forward in the relationship somewhere else?” asked Dixit. “It starts with us.” 

Becoming safe spaces for our children

When a child discloses something to a parent or elder, It’s important to set aside any personal discomfort and focus on the child’s needs, said Sampath. If a parent cannot support their child at the moment, it’s okay to step back because a parent does not need to be the safe adult for the child.

“If you can’t help them, help them find the person who can help. It’s not the youth’s responsibility to take care of our anxiety. There are so many ways to be a supportive parent. The children will feel our love, they will feel that trust,” Dixit added.

 “Our first response is going to probably make a long-term impact on how they’re going to seek resources or who they’re going to trust.”

As children grow into young adults, Dixit encourages parents to build more instances of love and trust so that parents become safe spaces for their children.

Parents need to initiate honest and open conversations about dating and relationships, says Sharma. Otherwise, their children will turn to other potentially misleading sources for information.

“Parents are some of the most important people in youth’s lives.”

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is the Development Manager at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She brings her passion for community journalism and experience in fundraising, having...