Where's the "Teachable Moment" for Teen Dating Violence?

A lot of teens blamed Rihanna, not Chris Brown—here’s how to keep your own teen safe

Rihanna and Chris Brown perform together in 2008.
Photograph: Adam Bielawski / PR Photos

"I wonder why he hit her?"  A Rihanna song came on the radio and one of the sixth-grade girls in my SUV innocently asked that question—which was all I needed to start the conversation.  I was driving the girls—all members of the basketball team that I coach—to see a Big East tournament, but I took that teachable moment to give them an important message about protecting themselves in life rather than on the court.

When the U.S. was riveted by Professor Gates’s arrest in Cambridge, President Obama used the incident as a teachable moment about racism.  I wish he had been equally vocal back in February when Rihanna was hit, and some believe almost strangled to death, by her singer-boyfriend, Chris Brown. But even if President Obama isn’t aware of the shocking statistics on dating violence against our teenage daughters—or, if aware, isn’t alarmed enough to take action—then we mothers need to be.

So here’s what I did in my packed SUV on that cold night in February:  I turned off the radio and stopped the conversation. I told the girls in very clear terms that it is not okay for a boy to touch them in any way that hurts them or makes them feel uncomfortable. And if this ever happens, they should immediately tell their mother, their father, their guidance counselor, their coach, or whichever adult they feel comfortable talking to. I told the girls that “why did he hit her?” is not the right question. That there is no excuse for physical violence, period, so there’s no satisfactory answer to “why?”
And if you think girls don’t need to be told that, you’re wrong. I was shaken to the core by an article in The Boston Globe that reported on a survey of local teens. Of the girls and boys questioned by the Boston Public Health Commission shortly after the Rihanna incident, more than half the teens said that the media was treating Brown unfairly, and 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for the incident. And 44 percent of the teens said that fighting was a routine occurrence in their dating lives.  Is this an outlier? Sadly, no.

Just because our daughters aren’t coming home from school and talking about violence, doesn’t mean they aren’t aware.  Forty percent of teenage girls say they know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend. But while many teens know all about this, parents typically do not. As I speak to moms and dads about the work that my organization, The New Agenda, is doing to raise pubic awareness, very few are aware of the shocking statistics:

  • 1 in 3 female teenagers in a dating relationship has feared for her physical safety.
  • 1 in 2 teenagers in a serious relationship has compromised personal beliefs to please a partner.
  • 1 in 5 teenagers in a serious relationship reports having been hit, slapped, or pushed by a partner

Mothers also need to be aware of two new cellphone-related dangers facing our daughters: sexting and stalking.
"Sexting" is sending sexually explicit photos or messages electronically. This is not only frightening it is also illegal in some states. I spoke recently on a PBS panel to discuss a case in Pennsylvania where three girls who had sexted were arrested under the state’s child pornography laws. Parent shocker: Almost 1 in 4 teenage girls is sending nude or semi-nude photos of herself via cell phone.

Stalking is equally prevalent. Almost 1 in 3 teenage girls who date are stalked on their cell phones.  And of the girls who are stalked, only about 1 in 4 tell their parents.

So what can we as mothers do?

  • use the next "teachable moment" as an opening to talk about domestic violence with our daughters and sons (or refer back to Rihanna);
  • show your daughter an educational Web site like Love is Respect;
  • spread the word to other parents in our communities;
  • send this article or an email citing the above statistics to the principal of your children’s school and ask that teenage domestic violence be covered in the school’s health education program or other curriculum.

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