Sunday Mail - Body and Soul




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I’ve known one of my friends pretty much all my life. We were close when we were younger but have grown apart and I find it frustratin­g when we talk now because it’s mostly about stuff I have trouble relating to. I’m not sure if I should draw a line and just accept we aren’t friends anymore or keep in touch for the sake of our shared past?

It’s lovely to share a long history with a friend – you know a lot of the same people and you can reminisce for hours. But talking about the past isn’t a strong enough glue to keep a friendship going. You also need to evolve together. There needs to be shared interests and ways to relate in the present. There’s a saying about having “friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life”. Perhaps this particular person has been a friend for a (long) season. It doesn’t mean you have to break up, but maybe don’t see each other as often. Friendship­s are such an important part of life, and you can come away feeling better for having spent time with a friend, even if you or they are going through a hard time. In fact, we can often feel closer to a person if we support them through a tough period or they support us. If you consistent­ly come away from an interactio­n with this person feeling frustrated, then it doesn’t sound like this friendship is enriching your life. Perhaps you could catch up infrequent­ly to reminisce. But apart from these occasional conversati­ons or meetings, it sounds like there are other people with whom you’d rather spend your time.

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It was the first term of Year 10. At the age of 15, Samantha* was caught up in the giddy infatuatio­n of her first real teenage romance. But it wasn’t all sweaty palms, Valentine’s Day cards slipped into lockers and stolen kisses behind the bike shed after school – Samantha found herself having to cover up her arms to hide the bruises her teen boyfriend was inflicting upon her.

“I’d wear my jumper to school in summer to cover the marks he’d leave on my arms after his outbursts,” she reveals to Body+Soul. “It was humiliatin­g to admit to anyone, even to myself, that my first big love had become so hateful.”

Samantha may have felt like she was the only teen trying to navigate a violent relationsh­ip, yet Australian research shows that almost one in three young people aged 12 to 20 have been victims of dating violence. While teen boys are just as likely as girls to have experience­d some measure of abuse, girls are four times more likely to report being

frightened and hurt by the aggression they experience­d.

Teen violence is rarely discussed and many people remain unaware of the gravity of the situation. The issue was first exposed to the education and parenting sector in a 2008 White Ribbon Foundation report on the impact of violence on young people. And while the document is now over 12 years old, shockingly, it is still one of the few reports on teen violence in Australia that exists.

“Females were more likely to slap, whereas males were more likely to put down or humiliate, try to control the victim physically and to throw, smash, hit or kick something,” the report says. “Girls and young women suffer more, they are more afraid and they experience much more sexual violence than boys and young men.”

These alarming statistics are probably only the tip of the iceberg. Given that reporting abuse is something even adults struggle with, experts believe adolescent­s may feel even less inclined to disclose what is happening to them.

In my work with teen girls who have been in abusive relationsh­ips, these young women tell me they remained silent as they feared they would get in trouble from their parents for dating in the first place. Others kept quiet knowing they would have to face the perpetrato­r every day at school, or because they feared they would be asked to change schools to avoid their ex-partner. Some dreaded being alienated by their peer group if they spoke up, while others didn’t yet have the language to even identify the behaviour as domestic violence.

Queensland school psychologi­st

Jody Forbes agrees that young women can find calling out abusive behaviour particular­ly challengin­g. “Many have been conditione­d by narratives like Beauty And The Beast to put their needs aside; they may see it as their role to fix or rescue their partner. It’s vital we teach girls what the warning signs for abuse are, how they can set boundaries and explicitly explain how they can safely leave unhealthy relationsh­ips.”

With all the work that’s been done in Australia on raising awareness about relationsh­ip abuse, why then are we not developing more targeted awareness campaigns aimed at teens? Kate Munro, CEO of youth-advocacy body Youth Action (YA), believes it’s because the wider community wrongly assume that if a young person is impacted by domestic violence, it’s as a witness. “Adolescent­s experience domestic and family violence as primary victims/ survivors, but are often recognised as merely extensions of their parents or caregivers,” she explains.

Munro reveals that in YA’s preliminar­y consultati­ons with teens, 76 per cent of respondent­s said they hadn’t learnt about relationsh­ip abuse at school, while 41 per cent admitted that if they had concerns about their relationsh­ip being abusive, they wouldn’t know where to go to get help. “The gaps in education and barriers to accessing support need to be urgently addressed,” she says.

When love literally hurts, it can leave long-lasting emotional scars including anxiety, depression, substance use, antisocial behaviour, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. In addition, the patterns of abuse may also become normalised and leave young women more vulnerable to further abuse in their adult lives.

Women’s Community Shelters CEO Annabelle Daniel notes it is extremely common for older women who seek refuge in shelters to have endured their first experience of abuse in their teens.

Daniel is also quick to point out that we shouldn’t assume that the abuse

Spending all their time with their partner and no longer connecting with their usual social circle

Always checking their phone, and becoming distressed when asked to turn it off

Unexplaine­d scratches or bruises

Becoming withdrawn, depressed or anxious

Suddenly refusing to go to school, or a drop in their grades

Their partner seeming jealous or controllin­g teenagers are encounteri­ng is not at a severe level. She tells Body+Soul that Women’s Community Shelters regularly have young women seeking crisis accommodat­ion in their shelters. “We have supported 16- and 17-year-olds, some with children, who have been coerced into serious relationsh­ips before they were ready, and then subjected to surveillan­ce and had their daily movements controlled,” she reveals.

Because perpetrato­rs of abuse often isolate their victims from friends and family, she continues, once the violence escalates, these young women are left distraught – and homeless.

Although schools prioritise bullying programs, many in education and in the domestic-violence sector believe the relationsh­ip abuse teen girls experience is the public-health emergency we must stop ignoring.

“Throughout my career I’ve certainly seen girls as young as 14 and 15 being manipulate­d and controlled by their boyfriend,” says Paulina Skerman, the principal of Santa Sabina College, an all-girls school in Sydney. “With older girls, the abuse can become frightenin­g – and criminal.”

She says it’s time for parents and teachers to heighten their awareness of the dating violence our girls are experienci­ng in order to better support them to firstly identify abuse, and then to protect themselves from it. “If we won’t challenge gender stereotype­s, discuss power imbalances and shine a light on toxic relationsh­ips, then who will?”

Samantha agrees we must stop burying our heads in the sand. “The only one who should have felt ashamed of what was happening between us was him,” she says. “I hope sharing my story will help other teen girls going through what I went through to know they aren’t to blame, and that what is happening to them is not only wrong, but a path they shouldn’t have to walk alone.”

Dannielle Miller is a teen educator and the director of Education and Special Projects at Women’s Community Shelters. She is the co-author, with Nina Funnell, of Loveabilit­y: An Empowered Girl’s

Guide To Dating And Relationsh­ips.

*Not her real name.

If you or anyone you know is suffering violence, there is lots of help out there. Call 1800RESPEC­T on 1800 737 732 or Kids Help Line on 1800 551 800, to get advice and support.

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