Dating is a normal and usually happy developmental progression on the path to your teen’s independence. But some young romantic relationships take an unexpected turn.
According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (www.nrcdv.org), approximately 1.5 million teens are in an abusive romantic relationship. The indignity, manipulation and violence they suffer is no less isolating, soul-crushing and life-threatening due to their tender age. Just as in adult relationships, the abuse can be verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and digital, with the latter being an especially effective control mechanism for youth who’ve grown up with and live their lives on “Insta,” Snapchat and Pinterest.
The seriousness of this issue has even elicited concern from the National Institute of Justice (www.nij.gov), which funds studies on teen dating violence to examine 12- to 18-year-olds’ experience of abuse in the context of romantic or consensual relationships. That concern is supported by loveisrespect.org, an organization created to engage, educate and empower youth to prevent and end abusive relationships, further pointing to the importance of addressing these behaviors early on. Its sobering statistics reveal that the severity of intimate partner violence in adults is often greater in cases where a pattern of abuse was established in adolescence. Furthermore, a longitudinal study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org) found that teens caught up in harmful relationships with those they are intimate with are at a greater risk of depression and engaging in risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse.
Addressing this issue is crucial to ensuring your child’s safety by teaching them what does — and doesn’t — constitute a healthy relationship, as well as allowing you to outline positive dating parameters they’ll rely on well into adulthood.
Recognize red flags
Discuss consent with your teen. Explain that they have ownership and agency over their own body and should always feel safe and respected within any relationship. Teach your child what a healthy romance looks like, and contrast that with harmful scenarios. Talk about the inappropriateness of partners who subject their significant others to put-downs, name-calling, yelling and threats. Make it clear that controlling behaviors are abusive too. Demanding that a boyfriend or girlfriend neglect relationships with family and friends should raise an immediate red flag, as should exaggerated jealousy over past relationships. And of course, physical violence is never acceptable under any circumstances, nor can it be rationalized away. These conversations should also address — and question — socially and culturally ingrained male dominant and female subservient roles. Break down what a balanced dating relationship looks like with your teen. Remember too, that children often emulate behavior they see at home, so be particularly aware of modeling respect, consideration and kindness in your own relationship.
Emphasize the power of no
Encourage your child to promote clear communication with their partners. Talk them through not worrying about what a boyfriend or girlfriend may think if your child doesn’t agree with everything they say or do. Convey that it is acceptable to say no or walk away from anything they see as problematic or that makes them uncomfortable in a relationship. Help them practice doing that by role-playing, and be sure to include what they should do if met with pushback or aggressive behavior.
Ask others to chime in
Broaden the personal conversation about teen dating violence to include community groups and schools; some have educational modules that parents can access and support. Organizations like the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov — check out its “Dating Matters” initiative) offer free downloadable materials on the subject. After-school, athletic and worship-based programs, clubs and counselors can be urged to explore the topic with their participants. Know that there are others in the community who can help you educate your child and help keep them safe.
Navigate troubled waters
If you suspect your child may be in an abusive relationship, calmly express your concern and offer practical steps to getting help. Make it clear they are not responsible or to blame for the abuse. If your child is resistant to discussing the situation or becomes hostile or defensive, provide them with relevant resources they can contact on their own, such as loveisrespect, which utilizes trained teen dating violence survivors who will text, speak or chat online with your teen; the National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org); and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.fcadv.org).
A conversation about abusive relationships may be awkward to initiate, but it’s critical. The earlier it happens, the better the chances your children will enjoy safe and happy romances — now and as adults.
Tameeka Grant, Ph.D., has more than 20 years’ experience as a researcher; most of her work has been devoted to program evaluation to improve services for children and families. She is currently focused on The Children’s Trust’s small CBO capacity building and family strengthening and neighborhood support partnerships initiatives.