Teen Violence Expert Answers Your Questions

Abusive relationships are becoming increasingly common among teens, according to recent studies, with one in three girls likely to be involved in an abusive relationship before graduating from high school. Dr. Jill Murray, a leading authority on abusive dating relationships, answers your questions about teen dating and how to spot warning signs of emotional and physical abuse.

Below, Dr. Murray answers a selection of questions viewers sent to ABCNEWS.com following "20/20's" report on abusive dating relationships (See Related Story). If your question was not answered, visit Murray's Web site at http://www.drjillmurray.com/.

Lisa Harrelson in Hartshorne writes:
Dr. Murray,
I have a question about a boy who yells at me and I don't know what to do because he threatens that if I stop talking to him that he will kill himself. I want to leave but I want him to be ok too, so what should I do?

Dear Lisa,
I can imagine how worried you are about his boy. Please know that abusers use the threat to kill themselves very frequently. While it is usually a manipulation to keep the girl with him, you should take all threats of suicide seriously. Because you are not the best person to actually help such an unstable person -- you are a teenager without the training and resources to really help in a meaningful way -- the very best thing you can do for him is to tell a school counselor, his parents, or the police of his threats. They are in a position to make a difference for him. If you are worried that he will be angry with you for telling an authority figure, you can see clearly that he was just trying to manipulate and frighten you; something that healthy, loving people don't ever do to the partners they care for.

Arlene in Charlotte, N.C., writes:
I watched this segment of "20/20." After watching tonight, I am very concerned for my daughter's safety. She is 21 years old and living with her boyfriend, who is 22. At the present time, we notice emotional abuse on his part. He curses and belittles her. My daughter mentioned to me he has never hit her, but after watching this segment tonight, I am very worried and do not know what to do. I have spoken to my daughter several times and explained to her that this may lead to physical abuse. Of course, she will not listen to me and continues to see him. He does not trust her. He needs to know who she is with, where she is. She is moving out of their apartment this weekend, but he is so obsessed with her and does not want to end their relationship. My husband and I are so frightened that this may lead to a tragic ending. Can you please advise me.
I am hoping to hear from you soon.
Thank you so much.

Dear Arlene,
I'm relieved that your daughter thinks enough of herself to move out of the apartment. That's a very good step. I like to talk to young people about love being a behavior, rather than a feeling. You can ask her if she believes that a loving boyfriend would curse at her, belittle her, have to know where she is at all times, and not trust her. You see, love and fear can never co-exist. Love and sadness can never co-exist. Certainly, he doesn't want to end the relationship; abusers are extremely dependent people. Your daughter sounds like a lovely young woman who deserves better. Asking her why she thinks this is the best that she deserves may be a starting point for an important conversation.

Katrin in Los Angeles writes:
I'd like to help my cousin with ending an abusive and threatening relationship. She is afraid of her boyfriend hurting her family as he previously threatened -- thus is waiting for the "right time" and "the right way" to end it "without provoking him" or involving her family. Could you please give some suggestions or references to help with ending such a relationship. Thank you.

Dear Katrin,
What your cousin is feeling is very much the way most girls in abusive relationships feel. Please take what I'm going to tell you very seriously and show this message to your cousin. A person who makes a threat to harm another person is very dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that in California, this type of behavior is called a "terrorist threat." Even if she believes that he would never follow through on his threat, she needs to ask herself why she would care about what the "right time" and "right way" is for him. The fact is that with a dangerous abuser such as he, there is no right way or right time and yes, she will undoubtedly "provoke him." My best advice in this situation is that she go to a police department and tell an officer there what has transpired and ask for a restraining order for herself and her family. This may help keep her safer. She also needs to tell her family what has been happening and come clean with them. They deserve to know about the threats to their safety so that they can be advised of his potentially harmful behavior. It isn't fair to keep them in the dark to preserve her own pride.

Pamela in Vacaville, Calif., writes:

How can you get help for a teen daughter who's so caught up in wanting to "help" her boyfriend that she doesn't see or care that the relationship is destroying her own self esteem? It seems that if there's no direct physical violence involved (yet) it's harder to make her see all the red flags popping up.

Dear Pamela,

Most often, the girls who are involved in abusive dating relationships are sweet and nurturing girls. Abusers know this and take advantage of their loving nature. It is not your daughter's job to "help" him. It is her job to grow and develop emotionally during her teen years. She cannot do that by being at his beck and call, afraid that he may do something drastic. In truth, she cannot help him for a variety of reasons, but the best one to tell her is that she is not trained to do so and he should really seek professional counseling if he has so many difficult challenges in his life. They can make a real difference. You may also want to investigate some counseling for your daughter. It is concerning to me that she doesn't care that this relationship is harming her own self esteem.

Pat in Hollidaysburg, Pa., writes:

I work as a counselor in a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys. Every boy on my caseload is sent to us seething with anger. It is my job to magically change them into mature responsible young men. Do you have any suggestions for therapeutic interventions that will make a difference to these young men?

Dear Pat,

You are certainly dealing with a difficult population. Whenever I see an angry person, what I am really seeing is a deeply hurt person. Anger is pain in the past. It's just easier for boys and men to show anger rather than admit that they are truly hurt or frightened. The key to helping someone deal with their anger is helping them understand the true feelings that are underneath it and drive it. I am quite certain that each of these boys has had a horrific childhood in which they witnessed abuse and/or were abused themselves. They may not know how to handle all of the hurt and confusion they feel. Helping them to talk about it and being empathic to how unfair it was is a good starting point.

Ulysses & Donna in Niceville, Fla., write:

My wife and I are very concerned about our daughter who is involved with a very manipulative and possessive guy. They both are seniors in high school. The ultimate problem is that my wife will be dealing with this alone due to the fact that I am in the military and will be deployed as of April 7th for 18 months. This is a crucial time in my daughter's life and I'm torn with having to leave. We don't know if there has been any physical abuse but know he has mentally twisted her. She is not the same sweet girl we had under this roof six months ago. Is there any advice or help you can offer? Thank you for your time and thank you for bringing this very serious problem to light in our society.

Dear Ulysses and Donna,

I can understand your concern. You are wise to understand that while there may not have been physical abuse, emotional abuse is at least as -- if not more -- devastating. You may want to ask her what her "payoff" is for being with a boy who is so cruel to her. I believe that we do everything for a payoff. They needn't be financial payoffs, or indeed anything that one can see. If I smile at you and you smile back, that's a lovely payoff for me. Why does she believe that he is the best she can possibly do? She may be looking for some male companionship and stability, so Ulysses, you may want to write to her and send her special messages as often as is possible for you. You may want to ask her if she would someday like to marry and have children herself. If so, ask her how she would feel if her own daughter brought home a boyfriend who is exactly like this boyfriend. Would she feel that she'd done the best job she could as a mother or that this boy was the best boyfriend possible? At this point, girls usually begin looking a little queasy. If she would not want this type of relationship for her future daughter, why is it good enough for her? Even as a young woman, the dating process is designed to figure out what you want and don't want for yourself in a future partner. If she doesn't ultimately want him, she will have to break up with him eventually, and now would be easier than three years from now. Ulysses: thank you so much for what you do to keep our nation safe!

Patti in Saylorsburg, Pa., writes:

My son is 15, but pretty mature for his age. He is dating a 16-year-old girl. They are continually arguing. She accuses him of lying, cheating on her and verbally abusive to HIM. He got so frustrated with her one night, he punched a hole in his bedroom wall. He does have friends who are girls, and has troubles verbally explaining his feelings right there on the spot. He has a perceptual disability, and ADD. He is not on medication. He's asked me for professional help. I have gotten him an appointment with a counselor. How do I help him? I listen, try not to lecture, but feel he needs to get out of this relationship. This young lady has a lot of other problems on her plate which hasn't made it easy for him. Icing on the cake, when my son's under stress, he vomits uncontrollably. Yes, he is going to get more help; but, this relationship's got to stop, as far as I'm concerned. She's extremely manipulative, and controlling. It is the reverse of what you might think. Thanks.

Dear Patti,

You are right: girls can be highly abusive to boys and in very much the same way that boys abuse girls. You may want to talk to your son about the very physical reaction he has to this relationship. Why is it more important to him to be with this abusive girl and risk his own health and well-being? Oftentimes, teens with disabilities believe that any partner is better than no partner, mostly because the abuser tells them that they are defective and no one else would ever want them. Even though your son may not like the way in which she treats him, he may believe that she is the best he can do. Teenagers just want to fit in and not stand out or seem different. I'm glad you are getting him the help he needs; I hope that will make a difference for him. Sometimes, just having a non-judgmental third-party to talk with and vent feelings is a huge help.