I am a Survivor of Teen Dating Violence. Here is how to Prevent it.


I am a Survivor of Teen Dating Violence. Here is how to Prevent it.

I grew up with the idea of being fallen in love with any random person at the first place. Every Saturday morning, I would go downstairs to my family’s TV room, holding the “Shrek 2” VHS tape, excited to see the scene where Fiona decides to transform permanently into a big green ogre to stay with her one true love. The next weekend, I’d watch the movie “Beauty and the Beast,” then “The Little Mermaid” or “Sleeping Beauty.” I’d doze off imagining a long-haired man on a horse swooping me up from the sad chronicles of the fifth grade.

But Disney is not what real life is like. And because no one told me about what a real, healthy relationship looks like, I didn’t know what to do when my boyfriend became abusive to me. I did not even recognize the abuse when violence became common in my relationship. I eventually did escape the relationship and have spent the last many years healing. But I want others to avoid what I went through, including preteens and teens who are just starting to explore relationships.

If I had had a trusted adult to talk to or had known more about what a healthy relationship looks like, I may have known what kind of person that man was when he cheated three weeks into the relationship. I was sixteen at that time. When I confronted him about the cheating, instead of apologizing, he told me, You can leave, but no one else except me is going to love you.

We fought often. His compliments would turn into passive-aggressive insults. I suffered verbal abuse, violent bouts of anger, and intimidation. After fighting, he would suddenly act as if he loved me again — a cycle that is typical in domestic violence and makes it difficult for survivors to see the truth and leave the relationship. I told myself I could handle him and his moods. I wasn’t a quitter. And it didn’t help that those Disney movies taught me that love meant sacrifice.

I didn’t know that there was no need to sacrifice myself and my well-being to be loved. Two years into the relationship and weekly fights turned daily. I told myself if it ever got physical, I would definitely leave.

And it happened one day, it got physical. But I stayed with him for another year and a half. When I was 20, I was tired of breaking promises to myself and feeling absolutely worthless. My five previous attempts to break up with my abuser were not successful, but this time, I knew this break-up would be for good.

Looking back, I wish a parent, a teacher or any adult, would have intervened. I just wanted someone to pull me aside and say to me “this wasn’t normal.”

But no one did anything. Two years into the relationship, I started seeing a therapist to “fix” according to me what was my fault and my shortcomings. She asked me the standard clinical questions. Then she looked at me and, for the first time, I heard someone saying that your boyfriend is abusive.

From the time I left my abuser, I have dedicated my professional life to prevent violence. As a survivor of teen dating violence, I want to educate children, teenagers, and even parents and guardians about healthy relationships and how to talk about abuse. Preventing teenage dating violence is not the teenager’s duty, in fact, it takes a village.

During the pandemic, when partner isolation made domestic abuse situations rise dramatically, I was the director of outreach and education at the WomenShelter of Long Beach, teaching middle and high school teenagers about the red flags I had overlooked in the relationship. I realized that most of the students have no clear understanding of a healthy relationship. It is difficult for young people to judge what behavior counts as abusive. Some view violence and abuse in relationships as normal and unavoidable, most often because of the romantic portrayals in media.

Even adults have a hard time making out what types of behavior are abusive. Remember in “The Notebook” when Ryan Gosling hung from a Ferris wheel and threatened to kill himself unless Rachel McAdams went out with him? That was a scene written by adults, by which many 12-year-old like me got excited when it was released in 2007. But it is a textbook abusive behavior, where the threat of self-harm or violence is used to manipulate the partner into doing something they don’t want to.

This lack of knowledge about healthy relationships also continues into their college years. When I worked with undergraduate students as a community organizer at a university’s women’s resource center, I witnessed how many 18- to 22-year-olds have no idea about what is healthy about relationships, sex, consent, intimacy and communication.

You are young only once, and events in childhood can decide what the rest of your life can look like. The pre-teen and teen years are determinative in establishing behavior patterns that continue into adulthood. Just as youth need to learn the foundational skills of reading and writing, children of all ages must learn what healthy relationships look like.

It’s time to introduce topics like domestic violence in middle and high school. It could be introduced into the grade school curriculum and should be discussed in classes. Schools could also organize events regarding Teen Dating Violence, Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence Awareness.

Teaching children about domestic violence isn’t only the job of schools. Parents, guardians and even older siblings should talk with children about boundaries. Older teenagers should discuss their power to define the boundaries around sex and intimacy. Addressing the broader problem of domestic violence needs policy and funding changes. But if you should begin having conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships with the children in your life.

I would like to remind everyone that domestic violence is also a public health issue. Be it an infectious disease, environmental factors or domestic violence, public health promotion wants to prevent any harm before it happens. Education about healthy relationships at a young age can decrease domestic violence cases and get us one step closer to a violence-free world.

Looking back, the intervention I needed most back then wasn’t for an adult to step in and stop the abuse after it had already escalated. I needed help way before that. If a parent or any other trusted adult had talked with me earlier about what are healthy relationships and how to identify abuse, I may never have dated him.

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