After my article on the HPV vaccine was published on CE, the director of teen ministry at my parish got in touch with me, and we began a series of thoughtful yet matter-of-fact exchanges about the best way to keep young Catholic women from experiencing life-long consequences due to what are often immature impulses. Two scenarios that we touched upon hit especially close to home for me: sexual assault (including "date rape") and domestic violence — the seeds of which are often sewn early in the relationship.
In the article that follows, I tell the story of "Karen." Though names have been changed, her story is true. It is my hope and prayer that parents reading this will be inspired to talk with their children — particularly their daughters — about staying safe. If you know of someone who is caught in the web of domestic violence, you may find the USCCB's recent letter on this subject informative. My own extensive article on domestic violence within marriage, "When Abuse Hits Home," was featured in the August 2006 issue of Canticle magazine. To order a copy of this issue (#29), call 800-558-5452.
If you met her on the street, you would never suspect Karen had been a victim. A pretty and outgoing cheerleader, Karen was active in her church youth group. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
All that changed her junior year, when Dave entered her life. After that she didn't have time for anyone or anything. Dave didn't want to hang around her family, or with Karen's friends. He wanted her all to himself. When they weren't together — by the bleachers in the gym, sitting by themselves in the cafeteria, out in his car in the student lot — they were on the phone.
"He's a sweet guy," Karen assured me. "He's always doing things for me and giving me little presents. He says I'm too good for him — he always puts himself down like that. His parents really treat him badly. But if I'm patient, he'll start to feel better about himself."
Unfortunately, it went the other way. Karen dropped out of cheerleading, then stopped using makeup. She stopped wearing her own fashions (at once stylish and modest, thanks to her parents' influence), and started wearing oversized sweatshirts because Dave didn't want her "showing off" in front of the other guys at school. He even hated Karen wanting to spend time with her family. "Who's more important — your sister, or me?" he yelled at Karen one day.
Near the end of her senior year, Karen called long-distance to ask me if I would be her bridesmaid that summer, when I was home from college. "But I thought you wanted to go to design school," I argued.
"That can wait. Dave says we should get our own place and work for a while first. So, how about it?"
I could hear the excitement in her voice. I hated to disappoint her — but I felt honor-bound to tell her what I thought. "Karen, I think you're making a mistake. If you marry that guy, I'm not sure I can even come to the wedding." A short time later, Karen and Dave broke up. Secretly I was delighted, but was silenced by her obvious pain.
The next time I called home, Mom told me that Karen had started dating someone much older; within a few months she was pregnant. The guy dumped her, her humiliated parents told her to take her stuff and leave… and the next thing we knew, she and Dave were married.
The next time I saw Karen was at my grandmother's 70th birthday party, almost a year later. Karen had lost a lot of weight, and had bruises on her arms and legs. She finally admitted Dave was beating her. She left him only after he threatened to kill both her and the baby. She was pretty sure he meant it.
Dating Violence: Is Your Daughter Safe?
In retrospect, Karen admitted that from the very beginning Dave had exhibited behaviors that should have warned her away from him. Would your daughter recognize these red flags? Help your child cultivate healthy friends and dating relationships by talking about these "danger signs." Give her a checklist of questions to consider privately:
Does your friend ever:
Give excessive compliments and gifts, especially early in the relationship? Does he say things like, "You're too good for me. I don't know why you like me." Don't argue — he may be right!
Believe that he is entitled to treat you differently than he expects to be treated (by you or others)?
Keep you "off balance" with frequent mood swings, one moment being sweet and charming and the next silent, moping, or angry?
Say things to make you feel guilty, anxious, or bad about yourself?
Become jealous, or try to control how you look, what you do, or whether you spend time with family and church friends? Does he get mad when you spend time with anyone other than him?
Express anger inappropriately — destroying (or threatening to destroy) property, hurting animals, or humiliating you or others?
Give you the feeling that he is "checking up" on you? Does he want to know where you are every minute?
Become angry when you have to change casual or last-minute plans, even if it's for a good reason?
Call you names or use manipulation or physical force to get you to do things you don't want to do?
Threaten to hurt you, someone you love, or himself if you try to break up with him?
Don't mistake these signals as a sign of love or commitment. Those who are genuinely committed to our well-being do not "use" us or try to control us. They want us to be happy and to realize our full potential. Real love frees us to be the best we can be.
ABCs of Keeping Teens Safe
There are a number of ways that parents can protect their children from inappropriate and destructive relationships.
1. Acknowledge and eliminate factors that will attract abusers.
Many women who become victims of domestic violence are first exposed to abuse or neglect as children, by a parent or other authority figure. In her book Real Solutions for Abuse-Proofing Your Child, child psychiatrist and family therapist Dr. Grace Ketterman identifies fifteen "red flags" to signal that a parent may be capable of child abuse:
Parent feels excessive and unrelenting stress
Parent has feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, or isolation
Parent struggles with social or financial problems
Parent puts own needs ahead of child's
Parent has difficulty recognizing or controlling anger
Family relationships are uncomfortable
While an individual factor may not necessarily signal a problem, the existence of several factors within a family could be cause for concern. Parents who recognize the above tendencies in themselves may simply be in need of some temporary assistance. Or the parents may need professional help to break unhealthy patterns of control or discipline.
Ignoring these tendencies, however, could have far-reaching consequences. In Karen's immediate family, for example, two out of three of her siblings later became involved in relationships that were physically or emotionally destructive. As a child, Karen's mother had also suffered abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Her mother's need to control her environment had tragic consequences in the lives of her own children.
2. Boundary setting and maintenance.
Teach your teen to trust her instincts, and to avoid associating with anyone who makes her uncomfortable. Karen observes, "Whenever teens experience that 'Uh-oh, something's wrong' feeling in the context of a dating relationship, they need to know to talk to someone else about it — to get an unbiased perspective other than their partner's."
There are many things a parent can do to help their children make healthy choices in future relationships:
Give clear limits and consistent correction. You have the right and responsibility to intervene when your children put themselves at risk by what they wear, with whom they associate, and how they spend their time.
Express confidence in their ability to make good choices. Avoid forms of discipline that are harsh or vindictive. Respect an older child's need for privacy. Encourage healthy friendships, and affirm all the ways they are using their gifts to serve God and His Church as well as the world.
Acknowledge their need for greater autonomy and responsibility. Discuss candidly and positively physical changes associated with puberty. Talk with your child about how to handle someone who uses pressure or manipulation tactics, and how to spot emotional "predators." Consider a self-defense course for your college-bound senior (and for you).
3. Confidence is contagious!
Predators and "players" tend to seek out and isolate those with self-esteem problems, who need a boyfriend to "prove" how beautiful and popular they are. By contrast, children who grow up secure in the love and respect of their parents (particularly the parent of the opposite sex) will seldom try to get their need for affection filled in unhealthy ways. When the "war of independence" is raging during those difficult teen years, try to defuse the power struggles by trying to see both sides of the problem, and by acknowledging and respecting your adolescent child's feelings even as you hold the line on the family rules. If and when they make mistakes, encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and do what is necessary to repair the damage to property and to relationships. All these things help to instill a sense of dignity and self-worth in a child, and teach her to expect the same treatment from others.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is often as difficult for parents as it is for our teens. Our children need us to continue "standing in the gap" in prayer, asking God to watch over them when they are away from home. It can be frightening to think of turning our children loose in such a sex-saturated society. And yet, the Lord tells us,
"In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).