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Recognize Teen Dating Violence and Know How to Get Help for Your Child

Mar 19, 2024 09:47AM ● By Ann Bower Herren

This is the story of two local women who came together, one a survivor and one an advocate.

Shelby [her real name] was 16 when she had her first real relationship. Her new boyfriend (Jack, not his real name) behaved in ways that seemed pretty typical with new love: he moved the relationship quickly and intensely, always wanted to know where she was, and showered her with flattery. All were also typical of ‘love-bombing,’ a common way abusive relationships begin.  Jack constantly texted her, checked her shared location on his phone, and made a point of knowing whom she was with. None of the behavior concerned Shelby. She was young and, like many teens, thought that’s how relationships worked.

Gradually, however, Jack went from monitoring to controlling her relationships with others by telling her that her parents and friends didn’t have her best interests at heart or they weren’t good for her.  Without her recognizing it, he was beginning another typical abusive pattern—isolating Shelby from her friends and family. As time went on, she realized how controlling he was. By then, he’d also become verbally and physically abusive. But he employed another common power move by abusers, immediately following his abuse with affection and apologies. Eventually, his bad behavior increased and his apologies stopped. Then the threats began—specifically, to hurt her and her friends. By this time, she knew she was in real danger.

With the help of her parents, who never gave up on their once happy and confident daughter, Shelby finally found the courage to go to court to request a temporary restraining order. Unfortunately, the system failed her and the order wasn’t granted (that’s another story). But as they were leaving the courthouse, Shelby’s father saw a pamphlet pinned to a board. It was for Empowerhouse. He took the pamphlet. That simple act changed Shelby’s life.

Support for victims, outreach efforts for teens

Empowerhouse is a Fredericksburg non-profit for the care and support of domestic violence victims and their children. Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Oliveira, the organization’s services director, started working there as a court advocate five years ago. As a child, she’d witnessed her sister’s abusive relationship and her hard-won bid to escape it. Jackie knew back then that she wanted to become an advocate. Through partnerships with the community, Empowerhouse provides support to victims of abuse. In addition to fundraisers, community events and presentations, the nonprofit also partners with area sheriff departments and Mary Washington Hospital and serves five counties.

After reading the pamphlet that Shelby’s dad picked up, her mom pushed her to have an advocate in court. So when Shelby made that call, Jackie was the one who answered the phone and has been there for her ever since. Through Empowerhouse, Jackie has supported Shelby, being an active advocate in her future court dates, counseling her, and making sure she has the support she needs. “She gave me authority to believe what I went through was real.,” says Shelby.

Beyond its domestic abuse advocacy, Empowerhouse is one of 14 organizations in Virginia selected to be part of a teen domestic violence (TDV) prevention grant. In this program, Empowerhouse resource officers visit area middle and high schools and educate the students on TDV. They help them learn what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like by teaching them the red flags of abusive relationships and by facilitating open communication and conversations. Because they’re reached while in middle and high school, kids learn at a pivotal time how to form healthy relationships based on mutual trust and respect. In fact, research shows that schools can make a difference in preventing teen dating violence by adding this sort of program to their curriculum. 

How to help your teen

As parents, we sometimes struggle to remember what it felt like at that age—to push the parental bonds, establish new relationships and make your own decisions while at the same time wanting to know your parents are there when needed. We watch our children as they vacillate between fierce independence and child-like neediness. And no doubt, watching them navigate this time can be frustrating, especially with the technology we all carry with us.

So what, as a parent, can you do? Talk to them about what healthy relationships should look like and lead by example. If you and your spouse treat each other with respect and trust, your child will learn from that. If your child is in a relationship that you have doubts about, be there for them.

“Believe your child if they say they are being victimized,” advises Jackie. “Don’t brush it off. Help them file police reports, be present with them in court, but also allow your child to make their own decisions on how they want to move forward.

Shelby has guidance for parents, too. “Ask your kid if they’re ok. Keep asking if they’re ok.,” she says. “Tell them that you love them and that you’re safe. Push through, keep being there, over and over. My parents did that, and they broke through.”

Shelby is 18 now but her abuse is still fresh. You can feel her pain through the phone. Her voice cracks when speaking. “A small part of me feels like he still owns me,” she says. “But I can do everything in my power. I never want to be that girl that feels unsafe. I never want to be that girl again.”

She pauses and I hear Jackie in the background reassuring her. Then Shelby continues, “I’m not a victim anymore, I’m a survivor.” And she is. Shelby currently attends a nearby university and plans to become a lawyer, advocating for domestic abuse victims while practicing criminal and family law. She’s even started a program while in school called RISE, to help young women who are abused.

 At the end of our conversation, I reconfirm one more time if she wants us to use her real name. She answers yes.  “I want to claim my voice, I was told to be silent previously,” she says. “My story could help other kids. Others can find justice. I will always be willing to talk about it.”

An astonishing 33% of adolescents in America are victims of sexual, physical, verbal or emotional dating abuse. Forty-three percent of college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors.

Visit the teen resources page at

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