Fans of R&B superstars Chris Brown and Rihanna are still trying to figure out what happened on the night of February 8, when Brown was arrested in connection with allegedly assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna. Brown, 19, with his all-American, cookie-cutter reputation and Rihanna, 20, with her good-girl, bad-girl edge seemed like the perfect young couple. But their situation has sent fans, radio executives and fellow artists and teens alike into a virtual tailspin, not quite knowing who to side with or what to say. Brown was arrested by police on a charge of making a criminal threat, but has not been charged.
If there is one good thing to come out of this, it's that the situation is sparking a conversation among young fans who might be confused on how to properly digest what they're reading and hearing about dating and violence.
ESSENCE.com went to award-winning television judge Glenda Hatchett who spent many years on the bench handling cases with troubled teens and their families. While she declined to comment specifically about this particular case, which has yet to be resolved in court, Hatchett offers sound advice to parents on how to sit down with their children and have this important discussion.
ESSENCE.COM How do parents start this conversation?
JUDGE GLENDA HATCHETT: Start by asking your daughters if they have had a situation where they've been pushed or slapped, but you have to ask your sons the same question because this works both ways. Domestic violence is gender mutual. We've seen girls be very abusive towards boys, but at the end of the day, the conversation with our teenagers has to be about them understanding that they are to be respected. If your son or daughter feels that he or she is being disrespected in any way, you, as the parent, need to give voice to that. You might hear, ‘Oh, but I like him and I want him to ask me out again.' What happens there is that the behavior that borderlines physical abuse starts to be tolerated. Let them know not to tolerate either physical or verbal abuse. We have to teach our children that they have to draw the line very early in the relationship.
ESSENCE.COM: How can you have this conversation with your son if you suspect he's being abused?
JUDGE HATCHETT: It's going to be really hard because they don't want to admit some girl beat their butt but you have to be persistent and say I want to know what happened. If they won't tell you, have a conversation with their friends. Remember that there is a thin line between a little prying and driving your child away by interrogating all of their friends, but I am telling you, if you don't believe you are getting straight answers, you need start asking around. There is a trust factor involved which is why you can't wait until something goes wrong before you start asking these questions. Start by saying, "I'm concerned that your girlfriend is really aggressive." Don't become judgmental. You want to be understanding to find out what's happening and find ways to support him. What you don't want to happen is for the girlfriend to go off and start pushing his buttons to the point where your son goes off and hurts her and then he's the one in court on assault charges and she's the one with a broken jaw.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you do if your son or daughter dismisses the apparent abuse by saying, "Well, we were just playing around?"
JUDGE HATCHETT: Too many times our children imitate behavior that they see. They see their mothers being abused by their fathers or by live-in boyfriends and they see men control them, threaten them, grab them by the neck and try to choke them and explain the violence away. Then they begin to emulate that type of behavior. This is beyond "that's just the way he is." We have to have these conversations with our daughters so that they know they don't have to put up with this, and you have to talk to somebody and take yourself out of that relationship. Also, if someone is making you angry enough to slap them, then you have to question why you are in this relationship and you need to step back. Talk to your kids and help them evaluate these situations and remove themselves from them if they become volatile.
ESSENCE.COM: What are some of the signs of an abuser?
JUDGE HATCHETT: If you see some kid who is throwing rocks at a dog, you know that is just not healthy. If you see someone who has a really short fuse and just goes off in a moment's notice, then something is going on and you don't want to be in that person's way because he or she could really become verbally or physically abusive. We know that children who are the victims of child abuse have a higher incidence of abusing their children. However, we also know that children who are not necessarily victims of the abuse but who witness domestic violence are much more likely to be physically abusive to other people and some statistics prove it even leads to a high incidence of teen suicide. You think this is a situation between you and your partner but your children are absorbing this and it's having a profound impact on them.
ESSENCE.COM Can someone who is abusive really change?
JUDGE HATCHETT: Absolutely! That's why parents have to be vigilant. It's never too late to get help. Everyone doesn't necessarily have access to great mental health care but there are many resources in our communities and also in our churches. People who seek pastoral counseling tend to have remarkable results. We need to realize this is generational and put a stop to it. If your child comes home with a black eye, you need to find out what happened and who was involved. For all you know, your child was the one who started the fight or had the tables turned on them! Find out if your children are being harassed at school or in the community.