I met Nicole* in the emergency room at a children’s hospital when she was 17-years-old. She had been assaulted by her 18-year-old boyfriend and would possibly need surgery to repair the broken bones in her arm. This was not the first time he had assaulted her, but it was the most severe. Some of Nicole’s friends and family knew that they argued a lot or thought they spent too much time together, but no one knew what to do or how to talk to her about it.

Sadly, Nicole’s relationship was not unique. Studies show that in a single year nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide will experience physical abuse at the hands of the person they’re dating. That’s more than the total number of people living in Jefferson and Fayette counties combined!

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and a great time to learn more about the signs of abuse, how to support a friend or talk to your child about healthy relationships, and to learn what resources are available.

What are the signs?

It’s important to emphasize that no one gets into a relationship thinking it’ll be abusive. Abusers do not disclose their intention to manipulate, isolate, or coerce their partners on the first date. Usually, those behaviors are subtle and happen on a spectrum that can leave their partners wondering whether a certain behavior was abusive or not. And they usually occur before there’s any physical violence in the relationship. Here are some common tactics and behaviors that should act as a warning signs if they’re experienced repeatedly in a relationship:

  • Isolation: Controlling where you go, what you do, and who you talk to. Keeping you from engaging in activities you enjoy or spending time with family or friends. Abusers will use jealousy (often masked as love) to justify their actions.
  • Mental, emotional and verbal abuse: Saying hurtful things, making you feel bad about yourself, playing mind games, or making you feel guilty or remorseful for their abusive behavior.
  • Minimizing, denying and blaming: Making light of the abuse or their behavior, denying the abuse ever happened, or blaming you for causing the abuse.
  • Digital abuse: Being harassed, intimidated, stalked, or bullied over text or on social media. This includes stealing or pressuring you for passwords to your social media accounts and monitoring your activity. Going through your phone (texts, pictures, call log, etc.), or texting excessively and pressuring you to stay on the phone with them. Posting demeaning or hurtful statuses about you online.

If you’d like to learn more about the different types of abuse, check out the interactive power and control wheel at Loveisrespect.org.

How do I support my friend or my child?

As hard as it can be to understand, staying in an abusive relationship is normal. Whether it’s out of fear for their safety, because they have a child together, low self-esteem, or because they won’t have anywhere else to go, leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. Over time the abuse can seem normal, making it difficult to appreciate how they might have been manipulated, isolated, or emotionally broken down. This makes it more important than ever to be supportive of them!

Here’s how:

  • Let them know you’re concerned for their safety and want to help.
  • Listen and acknowledge their feelings without judgment.
  • Respect their decisions (even if you don’t agree with them) and continue to support them.
  • Contact your local domestic violence shelter for support and resources.
  • Help them develop a safety plan.

For parents and caregivers, here is some more information on how to provide support to your child. Also, because it’s not an easy conversation to have, here’s a step-by-step guide about how to talk to your children about healthy relationships.

What other resources are available?

In Kentucky, teens can file for an Interpersonal Protective Order (IPO) against an abusive dating partner (or anyone who has sexually assaulted or stalked them regardless of the relationship). If the teen is under the age of 18, their parent or legal guardian will have to file for the IPO on their behalf. These protections were made possible by the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children policy priority win in 2015, House Bill 8, which was championed by former state Representative and current Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, John Tilley.

For more information about where to file and what to expect in court, check out the Administrative Office of the Court’s helpful guide.

To speak to, chat with, or text a peer advocate, visit Loveisrespect.org. Or, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or via TTY at 1-800-787-3224.

Let’s keep the conversation about teen dating violence going and ensure that every teen can enjoy a healthy relationship free from abuse.

*Name changed to protect confidentiality