By: JM Oran
A tender smile crosses Kimberly Segovia’s face when she checks her smartphone and notices a text message from her fiancé. She lights up when she speaks about him, praising him for being patient and kind, and stepping in to be a father to her two children from previous relationships. But 32-year-old Segovia hasn’t always been in such a loving relationship.
She was only 13 when she met the man who would terrorize her for the next four years, and become the father of her first child. For many years she was too ashamed to talk about her experiences, but, with the help of Break the Silence against Domestic Violence, she is now eager to educate others about teen dating violence, and how to prevent it.
A common misconception about teen dating violence is that survivors don’t experience the same level of abuse as adult women.
“A lot of the time people think that we’re young, and so it [the domestic violence] can’t be that bad,” she said.
However, the shocking truth is that 23 percent of women who experience some form of partner violence in their lifetime report that the violence first occurred when they were between 11 and 17 years of age, according to the 2011 Center for Disease Control nationwide survey. Teenage abusers use the same methods to control and manipulate their partners, and teenage survivors feel the same anguish and fear as adult women.
The abuse Segovia experienced at the hands of her 17-year-old boyfriend followed a trajectory that adult survivors will find familiar: it started off with verbal abuse.
“He would ask ‘Why are you dressed like that. You look like a slut.’ And then it escalated from there,” she said.
The physical violence began when her boyfriend picked her up from school one hot summer day and found her in a strapless dress. Enraged, he smacked her squarely in the face. Soon thereafter, her boyfriend attempted to isolate her from friends and family and, if he didn’t succeed, he would drag her away at gunpoint.
When the violence was at its worst, she remembers waking up one night with a gun at her head.
“His finger was on the trigger, and I didn’t know if it was loaded or not,” she said. “And he pulled the trigger – and it wasn’t loaded. But after that, I was just so scared that when he said things like ‘If you leave, I’ll kill you and your whole family,’ I thought he was capable of that. So I just didn’t leave anymore.”
Segovia finally did leave her abusive partner when he hit her in front of their child, but a lack of resources for teenage survivors meant that she did not get the assistance she needed. Fearing for her family’s safety, she ran away from home and was unable to attend school, so she eventually found herself in juvenile hall.
“In the end, I was the criminal,” she said.
This experience has made her a passionate advocate for safe houses for teenage survivors.
“I feel that there’s a gap that needs to be filled … there need to be safe houses for teenagers who are scared and whose families have been threatened, so they don’t have to run away,” she said. “Their mom and dad can then know that they’re safe … and that they can get therapy and come out stronger.”
As a parent, Segovia is also especially aware of the need to educate parents and teachers about teen dating violence so they recognize the warning signs before it’s too late. Teenagers will often be too scared or embarrassed to tell the truth so adults need to probe a little deeper if they are concerned by a child’s behavior or appearance.
RECOGNIZING SIGNS OF POSSIBLE TEEN DATING VIOLENCE
Segovia played volleyball in school, and dismissed the bruises that often appeared on her face and body as sport injuries. If a teenager seems to have a surprising amount of sport-related bruises or cuts, it’s time to ask more questions.
An unhealthy attachment to a boyfriend/girlfriend
It’s also important to watch out for the more subtle signs of an unhealthy relationship. It can be a red flag when a sociable teenager with many friends and interests suddenly starts distancing themselves from friends and family to spend time with a boyfriend/girlfriend.
A sudden change in personality or behavior
Teenagers are notorious for sullen or moody behavior, but they might be acting out for a more serious reason. Segovia was a straight-A Catholic schoolgirl who attended church every Sunday, but she soon stopped attending both church and school shortly after meeting her boyfriend.
“Because of how I acted out and because of how it looked, I was looked at as a lost cause [by teachers],” she said. “Nobody cared enough to know what was wrong with me.”
Sad or agitated behavior after receiving a text or using social media
Be aware that abusers can control and manipulate their partners from afar by using social media. They can also use smartphones to send threatening text messages or find out their location.
EDUCATING TEENAGERS ABOUT TEEN DATING VIOLENCE
Model healthy relationships for teenagers
Many teenagers, especially young women, grow up with an unrealistic view of romance and relationships because they only know what they’ve seen in movies or on TV. It’s easy for them to confuse intense or unhealthy behavior and extreme emotional highs and lows with “love.” Segovia didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like because she had never seen her parents hug or say they loved each other. Show children with your words and actions that real love is about respect, kindness and tenderness.
Give young males a healthy outlet for their anger
Most boys are used to hearing that it’s wrong to hit a female or to act out in anger, but they don’t learn how to express their anger appropriately. Segovia teaches her two boys that it’s OK to be angry if they find a healthy outlet – running around the block, working out in the gym, playing football, etc. She also encourages them to express their feelings.
“They’re allowed to cry,” she said. “And they’re allowed to come talk to me about their emotions.”
Teach teenagers to break the “girl/boy code”
A teenage girl might not feel comfortable telling an adult that her friend is being abused because she doesn’t want to betray her trust. A teenage boy might think that it’s none of his business if he sees a male friend talk disrespectfully to his girlfriend or hit her. Tell your teenager that domestic violence is never acceptable and that they must always report it.
RESOURCES FOR SURVIVORS OF TEEN DATING VIOLENCE
If you are a teen who is currently experiencing abuse, know that you are not alone. You should immediately alert a parent or teacher, but if you’re not ready for that step, there are numerous online resources that can teach you how to protect yourself and get to safety.
- National Runaway Safeline: A resource for youth who are runaways, homeless or at-risk.
- A Thin Line: A website that helps teenagers identify and protect themselves from digital abuse
- BTSDV’s Guide to Healthy Relationships
Segovia said it’s important not to give up hope that they will heal or find a healthy relationship.
“A lot of times we feel that we’re so broken already that nobody else can love us,” she said. “But we’re better for it. We’re survivors and we’re warriors. We can move on!”
She is even able to communicate with her former abuser for the sake of their shared son without letting it affect her.
“My fiancé asks me how I can just smile and have conversations with him,” she said. “It’s because I’m in control now.”