Ah, young love. From holding sweaty hands in the hallway to slow dancing (or going, um, further) on date night, high school romance is a normal part of the adolescent experience. Even though some reports suggest dating isn’t as popular as it used to be, still, approximately 35 percent of adolescents have had a dating experience and about 18 percent are currently in a romantic relationship, the Pew Research Center reports.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some definite perks to teen dating, such as learning to communicate with a partner and testing out likes and dislikes in a relationship. But there are also some concerning dangers. Namely, dating violence.
Teen dating violence is the psychological, emotional, physical and sexual abuse that occurs within a romantic relationship. Dating violence occurs far too often with youth, with 10 percent of high school students reporting being physically and sexually victimized from a dating partner in the past 12 months. Women between ages 16 and 24 are the most susceptible. Sadly, many of these teens don’t report the abuse, so the number is likely substantially higher. Indeed, about 60 percent of teens say they know someone who has been in a violent and abusive relationship.
This raises the question: How do we help youth protect themselves from being in an abusive relationship?
One answer is for parents to openly and candidly communicate with their teens about what it means to be in a healthy relationship, as well as what to do if they end up in an abusive one. Although this may sound simplistic, not enough parents are having these much-needed conversations. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, only 55 percent of parents reported talking with their 11- to 18-year-olds about dating abuse, with mothers broaching the topic more often than fathers. The study also found that teen dating violence was far less likely to be discussed than other teen-related issues including academics, alcohol and drugs, family finances, sex and dating relationships in general.
Why? Parents either thought their child was too young for the discussion or they openly admitted that they didn’t know how to begin the conversation themselves. But there are going to be a lot of necessary and awkward conversations during the pre-teen and teen years, and it’s best for them to occur with a parent than with a peer or, worse yet, found out through experience. Dating violence can have serious long-lasting effects like depression and anxiety, unhealthy risk-taking behaviors (like drug and alcohol use), self-harm and suicidal ideation. Teens who experience dating violence in high school are also at a greater risk of being in abusive relationships in college.
But often, there are warning signs associated with abusive relationships. Here’s how to start the conversation, identify the warning signs and get help if you spot them.
Prompts to start the conversation:
1. “When you are with someone you care about, they should never hurt you physically or verbally. Those actions do not show that someone cares about or respects you.”
2. “Relationships should be reciprocal, in that your partner’s thoughts and feelings matter, as do yours. If you are ever in a one-sided relationship, where there is no give and take, then it’s not healthy and not worthy of you.”
3. “You always have a judgment-free and safe space to talk, and that’s right here. Although I may not like everything you say, I can promise that I will listen and try to help you navigate through difficult times. I hope that you would share with me your life experiences. I also know that you don’t have to share what’s going on in your life with me, but I value that you are growing up and I will respect that in our conversations.”
4. “There may be a time where you really like someone, but there are some things they do that you know are wrong. They may try to blame their past for their behavior, and you may feel sorry for them and start to believe you can help change them. You can’t transform anyone. Don’t let someone deceive you into believing you are their only hope for change. Also, don’t let anyone treat you badly and then blow it off with an excuse. These are signs of an unhealthy and abusive relationship.”
5. “You know your relationship is unhealthy if your partner is offering more insults than compliments; if there are more fights than good times; if there are more tears than laughter; and if there is more fear than love.”
Questions to ask to determine if a teen is in an abusive relationship:
Does the partner show signs of extreme jealousy of the other partner?
Does the partner attempt to control and manipulate, like by telling the other partner what to wear or who to hang out with?
Does the partner make a lot of demands so that the other partner feels and acts more like a puppet?
Does the partner manipulate and deceive the other partner by saying things like, “If you really love me you would…”
Does the relationship seem to be on a fast track, with the partner professing love within a very short amount of time?
Does the partner show signs of unpredictable and erratic behaviors, like showing anger one minute and kindness and sincerity the next?
Does the partner use drugs or have a history of drug use?
Does the partner use physical force or degrading verbal insults during an argument?
Does the partner monopolize all of the other partner’s time and space?
Does the partner constantly use name calling and insults to make the other partner feel bad?
Does the partner isolate the other partner from friends and family?
Does the partner force the other to do things against his or her will?
Does the relationship consist mostly of fights and arguments?
Does the partner threaten psychological and physical harm if the other partner does do what he or she says?
Does the partner leave bruising or marks on the other partner?
Does the partner frequently leave the other partner in tears?
Does the partner constantly monitor the other partner’s electronic devices?
Does the partner stalk the other partner by showing up unannounced at his or her home or work?
Does the partner make the other partner feel as though no one else would ever want him or her?
Does the partner act possessive of the other partner, like by not letting the other partner out of his or her sight?
If you think your teen is an abusive relationship, there are national hotlines that can help you or your teen 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
1. Break the Cycle: (888) 988-TEEN
2. Joyful Heart Foundation
3. Love is Not Abuse
4. National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: (866) 331-9474
5. Teen Outreach Program: (800) 300-1080
Knowing the signs and repercussions of unhealthy relationships can help parents intervene if their teen is in an abusive relationship. One of the best warning signs parents have is their intuition. Too often, parents have brushed aside those uncomfortable gut feelings when all along they should have listened to and acted on them. As for those conversations, parents are some of the most influential people in teens’ lives. Regardless of all of the sighs, ear plugs and eye rolls, teens do listen. Not only do they listen, they also watch how their parents allow others to treat them. Teens need to know there is a role model who serves as their ally, provides safety and gives them unconditional, non-abusive love – and that person is their parent.