Fall brings with it not just cooler weather and pumpkin-spiced everything, but also a fair number of teary-eyed parents (or maybe secretly celebratory empty-nesters) hugging their newly adulted children goodbye on college campuses around the country.
Of course, college is bound to look very different this fall compared to previous years. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some universities are going fully remote while others are opening with caution. Regardless, in some form or another, your college-age kid is soon going to get a taste of what it’s like to be a legit grown-up and its mixture of freedom and responsibility. The big question is this: Are they prepared? We’re not talking highlighters and hot pots here, either—do they know how to stay safe? Beyond the don’t-drink-and-drive talk, which is of the utmost importance, teens should also get a how-to-say-no-and-mean-it talk as well.
College-age women, ages 18-24, are the most at-risk group to experience intimate partner violence and, possibly, the least prepared to realize it’s happening. Dating violence can start out so subtly most teens don’t even realize they’re being controlled, manipulated or in a situation that’s escalating toward violence.
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Survivor Anna* told DomesticShelters.org that she felt swept off her feet at 18 when she met her 20-year-old boyfriend during college. He was over-the-top romantic, a common trait of abusers who groom a victim. A year later, they were sharing an apartment, and her boyfriend’s demeanor shifted to one of verbal abuse, control and sexual coercion.
“I always felt like physical abuse was my line, but that psychological abuse was forgivable, even though I know now the latter will do more damage.” She says she wishes she had learned earlier what a manipulative person looks like. “I’d never seen or heard of anyone like him before.”
Don’t Rely on Colleges to Cover Boundaries, Consent
Though well-meaning and still important, most college “safety” speeches talk about the dangers of a perpetrator you don’t know—the proverbial “man in the bushes” who can jump out and grab you on your way home from a party at night. They may cover the basics of drinking too much and how that can increase your risk for assault (important to note: rape is never your fault, no matter how much you’ve had to drink). Some will talk about the buddy system—go to a gathering together, leave together. The underlying message here: It’s going to happen anyway, so make sure you lessen your chances of being a target.
Snohomish, Wash., mom-of-two Marianne Counsell says her youngest daughter, who attends Eastern Washington University, was required to attend an online training about personal safety before orientation, with topics that Counsell said built on discussions she’d already been having years prior, like how to be aware of your surroundings and the dangers of walking home alone at night. But it did leave out something.
“I don’t recall anything about dating violence. It was more about what safety measures they have available on campus. I wish I could say they did talk about it though.”
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Rachel Lindteigen is a Tucson, Ariz., mom whose 18-year-old stepdaughter will be starting Arizona State University (ASU) in the fall, living in the dorms. Lindteigen says the two have a “good, open relationship” and have talked about things like trusting your gut in sketchy situations, “and knowing that it’s OK to end things if something feels wrong.” But other topics like how to draw boundaries and spotting red flags in a new partner haven’t really come up.
“Maybe it should,” she admits.
Stephanie Thurrott, a writer for DomesticShelters.org from Emmaus, Penn., and mom of a college-aged daughter and son, says her safety talk included pointers like not walking alone at night and not putting yourself in a situation where you're alone with someone you don't know very well. But, she admits, "I haven't been as good talking about dating violence, trusting your gut ... or being with someone who discourages you from spending time with family or friends," a marker of control and manipulation in an abuser's arsenal of tactics.
Phoenix, Ariz., dad David Gallelo also just moved his daughter into the dorms at ASU. He says it wasn’t just one talk with his kids, but “years of constant conversations about things like ‘stranger danger’ and what to look for in people.” He enrolled his daughter in karate when she was young as a way to help facilitate the self-defense talks that would come later.
“[Karate] isn’t going to prevent anything bad from happening, but it should at least give her the confidence to be able to deal with those situations when they arise. Sadly, they will arise. It's just a matter of when they do, I hope she is prepared for them.”
His advice: “The minute you don't feel in control of the situation, do what you can to remove yourself from the situation or call for help.”
Things Daughters and Sons Need to Know
The below talking points are not just for the girls, though they are the highest risk of intimate partner violence. College-age boys should also know how to avoid abuse and avoid crossing an abusive line with a partner. So, sit down your teen, get ready for the eye rolls and consider covering the topics below.
Boundaries. Avoiding dating abuse and intimate partner violence starts with learning how to set loud and clear boundaries— Read “Where Are Your Boundaries?” for a comprehensive list of the different types of boundaries one can set. It can be as simple as learning that “No” is a complete sentence. If you don’t want to do something, go somewhere or date that person, you don’t need to give a thousand reasons. “No” is sufficient. If someone doesn’t respect that, it’s a red flag.
“It takes a mature person to set boundaries and many people, especially kind and empathetic people, have trouble saying no because we don't want to disappoint or anger others,” says Lynell Ross, certified health and wellness coach and founder of Zivadream.com. “Know your own value and self-worth and never let another person disrespect you.”
Likewise, listen to others when they set boundaries. There’s a very thin line between persistence and stalking.
Consent. If boundaries are the walls of your house, think of consent as the front door. You don’t just let anyone walk in. Before entering into a relationship or taking things further physically, make sure you’re asking for consent and/or are giving consent. According to LoveisRespect.org, simply asking “Is this OK?” or “Are you comfortable?” can be the difference between respect and coercion.
Red Flags. A red flag waving on the beach warns of serious danger in the water. Likewise, spotting a red flag when meeting someone new can mean serious danger if you keep going. Almost every survivor of domestic violence we’ve spoken to over the years admits they missed a red flag, which can be easy to do if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or if you get overwhelmed with feelings of being in love (also known as love-bombing). Red flags for dating abuse can include subtle control, guilt trips, ignoring your feelings, ignoring your boundaries, an excess of questions about where you were, attempts to isolate you from friends, having a constant victim mentality and admitting abuse in prior relationships. (Here is a list of other red flags.)
“Teens should know it's a major red flag for a partner to demand to go through their smartphone,” says Olga Zakharchuk, founder and CEO of the parenting advice site, BabySchooling.com. “Having someone demand to go through your phone is a major red flag that they could have control issues.”
The same goes for asking for your social media passwords, the code or key to get into your building or your class schedule. Remember, if it feels off, that’s your gut telling you something’s not right.
Finally, make sure your teen knows that abuse is never their fault, and it’s always OK to reach out and ask for help if they’re in a situation that’s making them feel uncomfortable. To learn more about how intimate partner violence can affect teens, see our Children and Teens section for a wealth of information and advice.
*Name changed for safety
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