African American teen dating abuse is a learned behavior

OpenEyessquareAs summer begins to approach us quickly, school is beginning to come to a close. Many youth just experienced one of the best moments of their lives: Prom. Many of us remember how special that night was. We got dressed up to a T, got someone in our family to rent a car for us, got our hair crisp and whipped, and got a lot of attention on that night.

It is definitely a special moment in life that many of us cherish, and should. It is that one time in your life you got out on a date when the adults in your life help send you off with no problem. No need to sneak around or keep secrets. It is probably the closest thing to a wedding that many of us have experienced.

Dating is a term that seems to be losing its meaning in the African American community today. What exactly is dating now? Some people have relationships that are strictly sex. Some have friend-with-benefits situations, where it is a little more than sexual relations. Others have more “traditional” relationships where both people are mutually exclusive to one another. The concept of intimate relationships has begun to be diluted.

This dilution carries over into the treatment we have for one another in our relationships. However we may decide to label our relationships, overall they are not as healthy as they can be. According to a 2012 study conducted by Racine Renee yellingteensgraphicwebHenry and Senem Zeytinoglu from Drexel University, teen dating violence is more prevalent amongst African American teens than any other racial group.

The teen dating violence comes in three forms of abuse: emotional, verbal and physical. According to Henry and Zeytinoglu, the most common forms of abuse amongst African American teens are verbal and psychological. An example of this is the boyfriend or girlfriend who continually checks their partner’s Facebook wall post and Twitter messages and then starts arguments based on what is found.

Another example is the girlfriend or boyfriend who purposely shames or neglects their parent(s) in front of their peers. Often these behaviors are used to do two things: settle disagreements and set standards in relationships. However, they end up causing more harm than good.


Where does it come from?

These behaviors are motivated by insecurities due to poor understanding of boundaries. Healthy relationship boundaries is somewhat a lost art form in the African American community. When we do not learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries amongst one another, we end up hurting others and ourselves. However, this is a learned behavior.

The common risk factors for these abusive behaviors stem from traumatic stress and/or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The factors are, but are not limited to, loss of a parent or siblings, parent separation, chemical dependency and/or mental illness in the homes, domestic violence in the home, being assaulted, having a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and experiencing a traumatic event like the tornado that ripped through North Minneapolis in 2011.

Much of these abusive behaviors is learned from environments that the teens are in. Often children who are raised in households and communities where they are exposed to violence begin to accept abusive and aggressive treatment as normal behavior. The media and others in the community reinforce these abusive behaviors.

For better or for worse, this is the truth. We, as Black people, do not treat each other justly or correctly much at all. Often, when we talk about our mistreatment of one another, we turn to the media. Rightly so, since the media has done damage to our ideals and concepts of what we find acceptable. The media has replaced the elders as the main cultivators of the Black community. The community in turn reinforces the stereotypes and beliefs. It is a two-fold effort. However, we often address only one side of the coin.



In order for teen dating abuse to be stopped or at least reduced, we must begin to provide better examples of healthy relationships. I define a healthy relationship as a bond, commitment or contract between two or more parties where everyone involved is benefiting and sacrificing something constructive and where no one is being mistreated or harmed in any way. This definition can also apply to other types of relationships.

In order to develop healthy relationships, we must begin to have open and honest dialogue with our young people and practice what we preach. If we do not, they will continue to be influenced by others and the media.

If we go by what history has shown us, the media does not provide positive examples of healthy relationships. From popular media characters Olivia Pope to Malik Wright, there are not many examples in the media of healthy Black love. Most examples are scandalous and portray the mentality of “I need to get mines by any means necessary.”

We must produce better relationships. Our future depends on it.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter @UniversalJones.