Last year, the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre (CICC) conducted a survey – the first of its kind – of 14 to 18-year-olds to determine the prevalence of dating violence among teenagers. Students at five secondary schools were polled with around one third of respondents reporting having experienced some form of abuse in a relationship. This is not a Cayman-specific issue: the statistics for other jurisdictions are similar.

“We knew it was an issue, so we weren’t surprised by the results,” Mariesha Spencer, outreach coordinator with CICC explained. “But we wanted to establish whether teens were aware of what constituted abuse.” In the presentations she gave and the discussions that followed, Spencer says, there were many ‘Aha’ moments, where students recognised the controlling or abusive behaviours she described, but hadn’t known they were a form of abuse.

What is Dating Violence?

Dating violence, dating abuse, or abusive relationships are defined as a pattern of controlling behaviour by one partner (or ex-partner) towards another.

This can take several forms. The most obvious is physical abuse, which includes any form of unwanted physical contact from shoving to slapping, punching or kicking. It can also involve destruction of the victim’s property, throwing objects, threatening with a weapon, or physically preventing the victim from leaving.

Emotional abuse is not always as obvious, but verbal threats, insults, put downs in front of friends, and name-calling are all forms of emotional abuse. More subtle forms of emotional abuse might include the perpetrator telling the victim what to wear, or who they can see, progressively isolating them from friends and family, blaming the victim for their own abusive behaviour, or threatening to harm themselves, or the victim.

“From talking to teens we realised a lot of them don’t know about setting boundaries as a safety net to protect themselves from abuse,” Spencer noted. “They don’t necessarily understand that it’s okay to maintain your individuality in a relationship and to do things your partner is not interested in. They may give up their own identity and assume that of their partner.”

Abuse can also be sexual in nature, with either one partner pressuring or forcing the other to perform sexual acts they are not comfortable with, or being prevented from using protection.

Among the survey respondents, however, the most prevalent form of abuse was digital. This type of abuse takes place online and can include checking the partner’s emails, texts and social media channels, stealing their passwords, threatening to post intimate pictures of them online or demanding their partner send them explicit photos, and constantly keeping tabs on their partner via texts or phone calls.

Where Does it Begin?

It’s hard to say whether teen dating violence is on the increase in Cayman as there were no statistics prior to 2021, Spencer says. One theory is that movies, TV shows and music that perhaps glorify violence, refer to women in disparaging terms, or portray adults in unhealthy relationships, are giving youngsters a skewed idea of how to treat their partners.

Certainly, it’s usually the case that abusers are acting out behaviours they have seen elsewhere – but the first place we should look, says Spencer, is the home.

Many of those who participated in CICC’s survey had witnessed abuse at home. They may have seen, for instance, that conflict can be resolved with violence and so believe that is how arguments are handled. What a child experiences at home inevitably shapes their concept of ‘normal’ behaviour. Therefore, if they grow up around adults in an unhealthy relationship, they are likely to repeat those patterns, not realising they are unhealthy.

The current culture of ‘toxic positivity’, Spencer adds, may exacerbate the situation, by causing victims to believe that even if their relationship is not ideal, they should ‘suck it up’ and not complain.

Consequences of Dating Abuse

The experience of abuse is stressful at any age, so anxiety and depression are common consequences, as are feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem.

Teens who are victims of dating abuse are also more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as smoking, drugs and alcohol, and may be more likely to lie, bully or steal. And for adolescents with many stresses in their lives, something has to give – and that will most often be their studies, so poor grades are a real consequence.

Abuse tends to get progressively worse, putting victims in real danger of physical harm from their partners. Over time, living in constant fear of a partner leads to prolonged stress, which is well known to contribute to the development of a number of diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

Is Your Child in an Unhealthy Relationship?

If your child is in a violent relationship, it may not always be obvious to you. According to Reach Out, a website dedicated to raising awareness of unhealthy relationships in teens and young adults, while 82% of parents believed they would know if their child was in an abusive relationship, only 45% actually recognised the warning signs. With that in mind, these are some warning signs for parents to look out for:

  • Your child is prone to emotional outbursts.

  • Your child’s grades are declining, or they are missing school.

  • Your child stops seeing their friends or doing activities they used to enjoy.

  • Your child’s partner is constantly texting, calling and checking up on them.

  • Your child is anxious, depressed or secretive.

  • Your child makes excuses for, or apologises for, their partner’s behaviour.

  • Your child is worried about angering their partner.

  • Your child has unexplained injuries, gives explanations that don’t make sense, or covers up injuries.

  • Teen pregnancy - whether because of coercion or the belief that a baby will improve the relationship.

Protecting Your Child from Dating Abuse

The best way to protect your teenager from dating violence is to make sure they know an unhealthy relationship when they see it. Talk to them early about what characterises healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Explain that healthy relationships are characterised by open communication, respect, trust, honesty, equality, enjoying personal time away from each other, and making mutual choices. In an unhealthy relationship, partners are not communicating, the trust and respect is missing, and there may be no room for friendships and activities outside the relationship. When a relationship becomes abusive, the communication may be threatening, there is often mistreatment, accusations of cheating, excessive control and isolation from others.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Their Relationship

Teenagers are at a stage in life when they are asserting their independence and want privacy. They therefore may not be open to discussing their relationship with a parent. If you suspect your child is in an unhealthy relationship, approach the situation with care and sensitivity.

Dos & Don'ts

DON’T:

  • Wait for your child to come to you. If you see red flags, try to open a conversation and let them know you are there to support them.

  • Force the conversation if they are not ready to talk about it. Try again another time.

  • Accuse or blame your child – they may be on the receiving end of plenty of that already, and the last thing they need is to be made to feel they have brought this on themselves.

  • Tell them to get out of the relationship. Teens who are victims of this type of violence typically want the abuse to stop – but they don’t necessarily want the relationship to stop.

  • Start sentences with "you should" or "you shouldn't". An abusive relationship is all about power and control, so you telling them what to do only adds to the feeling of powerlessness.

  • Confront the abuser.

  • Try to fix this yourself. There are resources available and professionals who have the training and experience to help you and your child.

DO:

  • Try to open a conversation in a non-judgmental way. Ask open ended questions like "how is your relationship going?" or "is everything okay?"

  • Focus on behaviours you’re seeing and ask how that affects them. For example, "I notice your partner calls and texts a lot. How does that make you feel?"

  • Be empathetic and supportive.

  • Remind them it’s not their fault.

  • Ask them how you can help.

  • Be patient. You may be met with resistance or denial at first, but let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready.

  • Arm yourself with information and resources that you can share with your child.

  • Be prepared for it to take some time for your child to seek help.

There are many ways that one partner may try to control another. But whether it’s physical, emotional, or through digital channels, it’s never ok.

Dating violence is not always easy to recognise. If you’re a teen and inexperienced in dating, you have nothing to compare your relationship to. If your partner is jealous and possessive, you may believe that shows they really love you. And for teens who have been neglected or abandoned in the past, being needed and wanted is exactly what they crave, making it that much harder to see the abuse for what it is.

Abuse takes many forms and tends to occur in cycles: periods of relative calm precede a build-up, then there is an explosion, followed by apologies and reconciliation, and then the calm and harmony returns (for a while). This can be confusing and cause victims to believe things are improving after each reconciliation.

If you’re a teenager and starting to date, these are ten red flags to be aware of in your partner’s behaviour

  • Frequent jealousy, moodiness or anger

  • Reading your text messages and emails

  • Pressuring you to perform sexual acts or taking/sharing explicit pictures

  • Blaming you for their anger/jealousy/moodiness

  • Controlling what you wear, where you go and who you see.

  • Constantly monitoring your whereabouts

  • Bullying, harassing or embarrassing you, online or in real life

  • Preventing you from seeing other friends

  • Vandalising or ruining your personal property

  • Threatening or causing any physical violence.

If you’re not sure if your partner’s behaviour is abusive, imagine your best friend behaving in the same way towards you. Would that be ok? If the answer is no, then it’s not ok coming from your partner either.

Make a Safety Plan

If you’re in an abusive relationship and are sometimes afraid of your partner, it’s a good idea to make a safety plan. Should a situation escalate and you need to get out quickly, you may find it hard to think straight at the time.

A safety plan involves knowing in advance who you would call (have their number on speed dial) and where you would go, as well as making sure you have the contact numbers for emergency services and support services you can reach out to.

How to Talk to Your Friends About Dating Violence

Most teens who attended the CICC’s presentations on teen dating violence said they would turn to their friends before they talked to their parents about a toxic relationship.

If you have a friend who has confided in you about an abusive relationship, here is what you can do:

Don’t be offended if they have been distant, or not shared this with you before. Abusers typically isolate their victims from friends.

Believe them. It may have taken a lot of courage for them to admit it, so if you doubt their story they may retreat.

Be patient. Leaving an abusive relationship often takes time. First a victim has to admit to the abuse, then make the decision to leave. Even when they do end it, they may go back to it – often more than once. On average it takes seven tries to leave an abusive relationship for good.

Help them create an exit plan. Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous so it needs to be carefully planned.

Check in regularly so that they know you are there for them and that they have your support.

Resources for Teens & Parents in the Cayman Islands