Interview on Understanding Dating Abuse

Melissa Havard

When teens begin to date, it can be an exciting time. However, not all dating relationships are good ones. Learn how to spot trouble early and how to help those that are in trouble in this LoveToKnow Teens interview with Melissa Havard, a specialist in social responsibility.

Teen Dating Abuse and Violence

There can be a darker side to teen dating. Have you ever been in any of the following situations or known someone who has? If so, you or your friend may be in an unhealthy relationship and possibly even a victim of dating abuse or violence.

  • If you loved me, you would.
  • He only hit me once, and then promised he'd never do it again.
  • I can't go out with my friends tonight; my boyfriend doesn't like me to ever go out without him. He gets really mad and yells at me.
  • She won't stop calling, text messaging, and coming over. I can't get her to understand that I don't want to be in a relationship, but she threatens to hurt herself if I break up with her. What can I do?

Teen dating abuse and violence is a serious problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse each year. And 1 in 11 high school students report being physically hurt by someone they were dating.

Types of Dating Abuse

LoveToKnow (LTK): What are the types of dating abuse?

Melissa Havard (MH): Dating abuse can be one or a combination of the following:

  • Physical abuse occurs when a teen is pinched, hit, shoved, burned, cut, or kicked.
  • Emotional abuse means threatening a teen or harming his or her sense of self-worth. Examples include name calling, teasing, threats, bullying, or keeping a teen away from friends and family.
  • Sexual abuse is forcing a teen to engage in a sex act. This includes fondling and rape.

Sadly, however, many teens do not report abuse because they are afraid to tell friends and family. Imagine being so scared of someone or ashamed that you don't know where to turn for help. This feeling can be very overwhelming. However, if you are reading this article, then you are making an important first step in getting educated so you know the warning signs and can make safer, better choices about dating and relationships.

Dating 101

In the beginning stages of romance, it is normal to want to spend as much time as possible with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You get all nervous, feel giddy, and butterflies swim around in your stomach. This stage is called infatuation; you'll do anything to please him or her! Within this context though, it's important to understand what IS considered healthy and normal in a relationship, so that you will be able to identify when things might not be so good, and possibly even be dangerous, both emotionally and physically.

LTK: What is a normal dating relationship?

MH: There are several core areas that are important in a healthy relationship:

  • Mutual respect: Does your boyfriend or girlfriend admire you? Does this person value your opinion, your talent, your intelligence, and your morals? Does he or she listen when you're not comfortable with something? Respect in a relationship means that each person values who the other is and understands - and would never tease or encourage - the other person to do something that was against his or her beliefs.
  • Trust: Does your boyfriend or girlfriend fly off the handle if you talk to another person? Does he or she quiz you and question every move or intention? Getting a little bit jealous is a common emotion. However, HOW your partner reacts every time you smile at someone or have an innocent conversation is what's important.
  • Honesty: Honesty and trust go together. If you are in a healthy relationship, lying is not part of the equation.
  • Support: In a healthy relationship, mutual support means you are there for each other in good times and bad. If you are sad because your grandmother died or just had a rotten day, then your partner lifts your spirits and is there to make you feel better.
  • Separate identities: It's one thing to make compromises for each other; it's another to give up your friends, your extracurricular activities, or time with your family because you are dating. In a healthy relationship, you maintain your own individuality and don't require your partner to give up things that are important.
  • Open/good communication: In a healthy relationship, each partner should be able to ask for clarification when they don't understand the other person. It's ok to take some time to really think things over, especially after an argument. Good communication means both people know how to share their inner most thoughts without fear of physical or emotional abuse.

However, there are some basic boundaries about what is considered "acceptable" and what crosses the line into unhealthy and even a dangerous pattern of behavior. In some relationships there are certain cues or warning signs that indicate things are not normal. It's important to listen to what is called that "uh oh" feeling, the inner voice that is telling you something is not right. Trust this voice, and get out of the relationship. It could become, or may already be, abusive.

No boyfriend or girlfriend has the right to tell you what you can or should do, what you can or should wear; or what kind of friends you should have. No one ever has the right to physically threaten or hurt you - no matter what. Period.

Warning Signs of Abuse

LTK: What are the warning signs of dating abuse or violence?

MH: Ask yourself, does my boyfriend or girlfriend do any of the following:

  • Get really mad if I don't change my plans for him or her?
  • Put me down, criticize me, and make me feel like I am unworthy?
  • Try to stop me from hanging out with friends and family or from talking to other guys or girls?
  • Want me to give up my extra curricular activities or an after school job?
  • Threaten to or raise a hand when angry? Hurt me in any way at all physically?
  • Threaten to hurt himself/herself if I end the relationship?
  • Blame behavior on alcohol or drugs?
  • Try to force me to go further sexually than I want to?

If you are experiencing one or more of these behaviors from your boyfriend or girlfriend, you may be in an abusive relationship. At this point, it is important to tell a trusted adult, preferably your parents.

What Parents Can Do

LTK: What can parents to if they suspect their child is in an abusive relationship?

MH: If you suspect your child might be involved in an abusive relationship, you must first establish communication and trust. This means reminding your child that you love him or her very much, remaining calm, listening, not being accusatory, and not being judgmental.

  • Tell your teen that you are there to help, not to judge.
  • If your teen doesn't want to talk, find a person that her or she will feel comfortable talking with.
  • Focus on your child, not on putting down the abuser.
  • You may want to seek counsel in advance from local teen dating violence prevention programs in your community or school. If you don't have a local program, call 1-866-331-9474 (National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline) or 1-800-799-SAFE ( for confidential help and support.
  • Take whatever safety measures necessary to ensure your child's well-being, including speaking to the school principal or guidance counselors, arranging transportation to and from school, and contacting law enforcement if necessary.

What Friends Can Do

LTK: What can friends do to help each other?

MH: Do your friends show signs that they have been physically abused or injured in some way? Some of these signs include:

  • Changing their style of clothing or makeup
  • Losing confidence and having difficulty making decisions
  • Decreasing the time spent with you and other friends
  • Receiving failing grades or quitting school activities
  • Starting to use alcohol or drugs

If you suspect a friend is in a violent relationship, ask very general questions. You could start the conversation with, "You don't seem yourself lately, is there something you want to talk about?" If she or he does share information, it's important to listen and remind your friend that abuse in any form is not healthy.

Where to Find Help

LTK: Where should teens go for help if they find themselves in an abusive relationship, or if they want to help a friend?

MH: Fortunately, there are many excellent resources to help you. Besides telling a parent or trusted adult, you can get information, guidance and support from the following organizations.

About Melissa Havard

Melissa has been a guest lecturer on the subject of social responsibility, first amendment, and the entertainment industry at Yale University, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. Melissa is on the Advisory Board of the Jason Foundation and provides pro bono services to LA Youth Newspaper. She is a member of Women in Film and NARAS, and still manages to raise a very cool teenage daughter, Katie. She is currently serving as a consultant to the Kaiser Family Foundation assisting with their Entertainment Media Partnership outreach-particularly with regard to Fox Broadcast Network's PAUSE campaign.

For seven years, Melissa served as the Entertainment Director, Office on Smoking & Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Melissa provided technical support to writers, directors, and actors on the science of tobacco. She recruited and provided publicity and media training for celebrity spokespersons, and served as executive producer for educational materials and public service announcements which incorporated celebrity role models to advance tobacco prevention and cessation messages.

Melissa holds B. A. in French and International Business from Florida State University, and a Master of Arts in Human Behavior from National University, Sacramento.

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Interview on Understanding Dating Abuse