When Brittny Henderson was 21 she served on the National Youth Advisory Board for loveisrespect.org. She shared with us her experience with dating abuse, why she got involved with educating others and what teens need to know.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with abuse.
I grew up in sort of a small town and I didn’t grow up very wealthy. I didn’t get to experience a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunities. My cycle of abuse actually started when I was about three years old. I was a victim of physical abuse and from there, within my own household, I witness my mother being verbally, physically and mentally abusive to my stepfather and I witnessed that growing up from age five until I was a sophomore in high school when I moved in with my father instead.
How did you get involved with Break the Cycle?
When I was a sophomore in high school I was involved in a mentally and verbally abusive relationship and I was completely blind to the fact, as most victims are. I had never been taught what a healthy relationship was, what it looked like and I wasn’t really aware that there were unhealthy relationships. And it wasn’t until I actually got to college and went to a dating violence speaker, an educational program, that I realized the situation that I was in and how much danger I put myself in. And from there, I really wanted to get out in the community because this topic isn’t something that’s isn’t talked about. It has this specific taboo that surrounds it and everybody feels that it’s a personal problem, but if nobody goes and talks about it, then we can’t fix the issue. So I’ve gone out into my community and I’ve brought speakers, presentations into two local high schools in my hometown and I just really wanted to do more so I contacted the Love is Respect organization and applied to be on the youth advisory board and I was accepted.
What made you see you needed to get help?
Things got so escalated and out of control that my dad ended up forcing me out of the relationship, as most parents do and I would still, for another 2-3 years, go behind peoples back and talk to my abuser. I would meet him in different towns and text him when no one was around because it wasn’t’ my choice to end it. I listened to the speaker, and he ended up losing his daughter to an abusive relationship and everything he said hit home to me and I realized the severity of it. I realized that it wasn’t in my head and that my life was in danger. Afterwards, I called my dad, started crying and the only words I could form were thank you. And he knew what it meant.
What is dating abuse?
Dating abuse occurs anytime that your partner tries to exhibit force, control, and plays mind games over the other partner. So a lot of times, people think it’s only physical and they think of well my partner doesn’t hit me, so I’m not in an abusive relationship, when in reality, their partner can be controlling them in other ways. It even goes down to technology. If your partner is picking up your cell phone and constantly looking through it, needs to know your passwords to your email, and facebook and invades your privacy, and pushes you to the point where you’re uncomfortable, that’s abuse. So it’s really anytime that your partner tries to control and change who you are.
How serious a problem is this?
I think it’s more serious than we even know. Right now, it’s reported that one in three teenagers will experience an abusive relationship. And least four women, every single day, die in the United States the cause of an abusive partner. I don’t think people are educated on the topic of dating abuse, but I think that those numbers are higher.
Does our love of technology play a part?
I absolutely think so. I think that’s a huge issue with the younger generations right now, it goes along with cyber bullying almost. People think that because it’s on the Internet it’s their right to know and they were never taught that there are boundaries in relationships and that relationships should be based on trust and freedom and I think because of the media things that you see online. They think it’s about control and that they have a right to know what’s going on in their partner’s everyday life, every second of the day, so they resort to the technology to do that.
What’s a huge misconception about dating abuse?
Some people think that only men abuse and that people in same sex relationships cant abuse. It’s definitely a huge misconception with dating abuse. People don’t realize that dating abuse doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t realize if you are male or female, it happens to everyone. A lot of the time I think that the male initiates the physical violence first, not always the case, because in my case my mother was definitely a physical abuser, but females are more mentally abusive, they play more mind games which people don’t connect with dating violence which is why I think the stigma exists.
What are some of the warning signs before abuse happens?
Abuse comes on very slowly, it doesn’t hit all at once. There are very subtle signs and in my case it was oh, are you really going to wear that shirt tonight, I like the other one better…
A lot of times it’s your partner using your clothes, wanting you to change how you dress, wanting you to change who you hang out with, wanting to be with you every second of the day. And at first that seems very flattering, to want to be around that person all the time, but really it’s a sign of abuse.
What 5 things that every teen should know:
- Everyone deserves the right to a safe and healthy relationship.
- A healthy relationship is based on trust and freedom.
- Your partner should never try to change who you are; they should empower the person that you already have become.
- If your friend is in an abusive relationship, the worse thing you can do it give them an ultimatum. .. All that does is drive them towards their abuser more and continues their isolation process.
- The way you can help a friend is by helping them get help and by telling them that you’re there when they’re ready because the hardest things for people to understand about abusive relationships is that it needs to be the victim that find it within themselves to get out.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
A healthy relationship at the teen level would be, if you have the free time to do what you want with whom you want. A lot of times in teen relationships, a partner will get jealous if you’re talking to someone of the opposite sex and that’s not okay. That’s not the sign of a good relationship. A healthy relationship should give you the freedom to be friend with whomever you please and it should be two individual lives coming together, not two lives forming one individual life, if that makes sense. You need to have your own life first.
Why is designating the month of February as an awareness month so important?
The month of Feb is so important because there’s never been a hot button issue such as ours for teens. People have always just assumed that teen relationships aren’t capable of experiencing things like this and people still thin that dating violence is taboo and it doesn’t really happen. This month really allows us to get out there and to open people’s eyes to the severity of the situation and some things that they can do to help raise awareness.
What should a teen do if they need help?
Love is Respect has a 24 hr chat and text so you can always seek advice. There are trained volunteers and it’s an immediate resource to help you work things out.
Create a safety plan- a way to get out when you’re ready. That’s something that a lot of friends and parents can do because a lot of times people need something physical to do, so creating a safety plan is a great thing to do if you feel like you have to do something physical at this moment.
Also talk to a counselor about what you’re feeling and start working it out within yourself.