Robin Stein, Director of Response
Eric Crabtree-Nelson, Assistant Director of Response
When we think of child abuse, teenagers don’t readily come to mind as a population that would be impacted by physical, emotional and sexual abuse…yet they are, and more frequently than we’d like to think. For teenagers, abuse looks and feels different than for an 8 year old or even a 10 year old. Why is that?
Though most of us recognize that teens are not “mini-adults” they are often, physically larger. As they continue to develop, they can and do tower over parents and other adults with whom they may interact. Our perception is that teens can fight back – they are capable of protecting themselves. Yet, the power differential remains ever present between an adult and an adolescent. Size and age should not be considered a variable. Rather, abuse of anyone needs to be seen for what it truly is; an individual exercising power and control over someone less powerful then they are.
At Response, an adolescent resource program of JCFS, we’ve worked with many teenagers who identify a history of abuse in their lives. For some it’s emotional abuse: parents or caregivers who repeatedly put them down, threaten their safety, kick them out of the house or call them names. For others it may be physical: punches, physical punishment with an object, burning them, holding them against their will.
Still others report sexual abuse at the hands of those who should love and care for them; a parent, guardian or other caregiver. When children go through puberty they begin to be seen for the first time as sexual beings. The unwanted entry into a bedroom in the middle of the night… An uncle who had too much to drink and whose hands begin to wander during a family reunion…. In family systems where boundaries are fluid and roles may not be clearly defined, sexual abuse can occur and the accompanying feelings of betrayal and loss are truly indescribable.
It may be hard for us to believe a teenager when he or she tells us that they have experienced abuse. After all, they are independent beings, capable of fighting back or fleeing such situations. But, more often than not, that teen has few safe places to go and fighting back may mean retribution, further endangering themselves or their siblings. Often, older children in an abusive family system become the de-facto protector of younger siblings. The sense is that as long as they continue to put up with the abuse, the abuser will leave the younger children alone.
Some teens do choose to flee; that’s why we know of so many youth who are homeless, who run away multiple times or who “couch surf” with friends for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Take the case of Ron, an 18 year old graduating senior who had been homeless for over a year. His mentally ill mother had physically abused him as a child and into his early teens. His father came to his rescue once he began high school, taking in Ron and his younger brother. Then he remarried and started a new family. The boys didn’t get along with their stepmother so he kicked them out. Ron ended up sleeping on friend’s couches until he was finally accepted into college on a scholarship. The scars of his childhood and adolescence run very deep.
Lisa struggled with her identity beginning in 6th grade. She tried to talk with her parents about her feelings of being “different” but they always cut her off whenever she tried to tell them. An extremely religious family, they simply could not fathom such an affront to their beliefs. During her freshman year in high school she couldn’t stand feeling as though she were living with a secret. She came out to her parents. They disowned her and kicked her out of the house. She hasn’t seen them or her sister in over a year. A distant cousin took her in but the situation is unstable at best. There’s nowhere safe for her to go.
Teens can and do experience an array of abuse in their lives and often the result of them sharing or disclosing such information is not taken as seriously as it should be. Calls to hotlines begin with questions like “how old is the victim?” “How large are they?” “Are there visible marks on their bodies?” “Are they afraid of the perpetrator?” After a teen has finally gotten up the courage to share their deepest, darkest secret with someone, they are most often met with disbelief or complete dismissal, leaving them feeling resentful, angry, hopeless and unprotected by our community.
Adolescents who have experienced abuse often slip through the cracks of everyone’s conscious awareness. How could that be? They are experiencing so much dramatic change in their lives, across so many spectrums: physically, psychologically and cognitively. Add to that the fact that teens themselves may not immediately identify that what they have experienced is abuse. There’s a host of reasons for this, including: fear of retribution; the sense that somehow the abuse was their fault; mixed feelings of both love and fear of the perpetrator; guilt about what might have led them into an unsafe situation.
Adolescents who have experienced abuse may exhibit any of the following behaviors: night terrors or difficulty sleeping; a change in eating habits; sudden mood swings; hyper vigilance in terms of their environments; becoming secretive or withdrawn; exhibiting self-disgust or body image issues. They may regress to a younger age with accompanying behaviors. They may also engage in self-harming behaviors (cutting, burning, etc.). Hygiene may become an issue. Engagement in drug and alcohol use is a possibility. Frequently, teens may engage in promiscuous behavior which can include multiple partners and unsafe sexual activity.
Of course, many of these symptoms or behaviors may be exhibited due to a host of other reasons such as depression; impending divorce; loss of a family member, close friend or pet; troubles at school; bullying, etc. These behaviors alone are not the only indicators that a teen has been abused.
As helping adults, parents, educators and community members we need to be aware of the potential risks our youth face and vigilant about intervening; asking the right questions when our gut tell us something is wrong. Our teens need and deserve our protection.
So….what can we do? Well, educating ourselves and others is a good start. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of abuse in adolescents and letting others know about what you believe is happening is another way to help. A third way is by remembering that teens are still children on their way to adulthood and in order for them to arrive there in a safe, healthy and happy way, they need adults to stand beside them along that entire journey.