KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In Tennessee, one in every six girls who attend high school reported facing physical abuse in a relationship last year.
According to new data from the Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth, that number is significantly higher than anywhere else in the U.S. and twice as high as the national average.
Catherine Oaks works with both adult and teenage victims of domestic abuse. She said the recent statistics are alarming.
"It is never normal or healthy to experience any type of physical violence whether it's a shove a hit a push or a slap. That's not healthy behavior," Oaks said.
Relationship abuse can be confusing, especially for a high schooler. She said that young girls may not be able to fully understand the manipulation, lying and gaslighting that underpins abuse. Many may believe that it's a way that their partner shows love, she said.
Relationship abuse can include partners controlling the finances of others, stalking and trying to make a person feel stuck in the relationship with no way out.
Oaks also said that a lot of times, the emotional aspect of relationship violence can be overlooked.
"A lot of times we do think just physical violence like hitting, slapping and other forms of physical violence that you're aware of," Oaks said. "But emotional abuse then [turns] to threats and turns into physical violence. That is a common thing we see."
There's an even higher rate of high school girls experiencing emotional relationship abuse, she said, compared to physical abuse. However, she said that emotional abuse often turns into physical abuse.
It's important to recognize the red flags so emotional abuse doesn't evolve into physical abuse.
"Maybe there's extreme jealously or a kind of controlling behavior," she said. "Maybe cutting off friendships or you not being able to do things with other people. [Abusers may] what you wear, a lot of monitoring your whereabouts."
There's no way to specifically pinpoint why these abuse rates are significantly higher in Tennessee, she said, but there is a common trend.
"Looking at the research, both boys and girls that grow up in homes where they witness domestic violence end up many times being abusers themselves or victims of domestic violence," Oaks said.
If you or someone you know is a victim of relationship abuse, the McNabb Center has a 24-hour crisis line at (865) 539-2409.