Healthy Relationships: Avoiding Teen Dating Violence
Dating is a rite of passage for adolescents. Despite the many worries it causes parents – curfews and sexual intimacy just to name a few – the experience for teens of developing relationships with the opposite sex while still under the watchful eye of their parents is a healthy one. Parents should view dating as just another opportunity to mold and shape their “adult-in-training.” The point is to offer teens advice and guidance so they learn to choose, develop and make healthy decisions about relationships with friends, family and girlfriends or boyfriends. What they learn now – about how to treat others and how they expect to be treated – will affect future relationships throughout their entire life. Therefore it is vitally important that teens recognize and understand what constitutes a healthy relationship.
Teen Dating Violence Statistics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report some very troubling statistics. About one in 11 teens reports being a victim of physical dating violence each year. About one in four teens reports verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual violence each year. About one in five high school girls has been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner.
What is Dating Violence?
Dating violence is not the occasional argument or bad mood. Rather, dating violence is when someone tries to control their girlfriend or boyfriend through abusive behavior. The controlling behaviors the perpetrator uses can be physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal in nature, and can include: insults or name calling; intimidation or threats – personally or through technology, such as text messages; hitting, shoving, biting or other physical aggression; rape, sexual coercion or restricting access to birth control; humiliation; and isolation from family and friends. Dating violence crosses all racial, economic and social lines. Women are more likely than men to experience dating violence, but even teenage boys have been victims of controlling, emotional abuse from their girlfriends.
While it may seem strange that someone would allow themselves to get caught up in an abusive relationship, there are many reasons why a teen may stay. Inexperience with a proper dating relationship makes them vulnerable to romanticized views of love (e.g., a young girl may consider her partner’s jealousy as proof of his love), peer pressure (e.g., if they have friends who have been abused, they make think abuse is normal), and self-doubt (e.g. perhaps they provoked the abuse). If the abuse escalates, the victim may feel trapped, like there is not way to escape the relationship.
When and What Should Adults Say to Teens about Healthy Relationships?
The best time to talk about unhealthy relationships is before they start. Helping children develop healthy relationship skills early can help them interact positively with others as they grow.
Be sure to articulate that people in healthy relationships respect each other. They can talk honestly and freely to each other and share decisions. They can disagree on something, but still support their partner. They trust each other and respect each other’s independence.
Explain that an unhealthy relationship occurs when one person tries to control or manipulate the other to get his or her way. Although it may seem obvious to you, spell out what constitutes disrespect, such as using verbal insults, mean language, or nasty putdowns. Teenagers can choose better relationships when they learn to identify the early warning signs of an abusive relationship, such as: extreme jealousy, unpredictable mood swings, explosive anger, making threats, blaming others for his/her problems or feelings, or using force during an argument.
It’s important to teach children that they are valuable people who deserve to be treated with respect. No one deserves to be abused. Let them know that they cannot change someone else, and in time the violence will likely get worse, so it’s better to get out of a relationship that shows early warning signs.
Throughout a child’s life, parents should work on talking about and modeling skills that will help the child develop and maintain healthy relationships. They are:
- Respect: showing consideration for the feelings and well being of the other person.
- Anger Management: dealing with anger in positive, non-violent ways.
- Problem Solving: knowing how to break problems down, find possible solutions, and consider the likely outcomes for each solution.
- Negotiation and Compromise: turning problems into “win-win” situations in which each partner gets some of what he or she wants.
- Assertiveness: asking for what one wants clearly and respectfully, without threats, intimidation, or physical force. This means standing up for one’s own rights (including learning how to say ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right) without treading on the rights of others.
Teach Dating Safety
Adolescents aren’t always good at thinking through potentially dangerous situations, so it’s up to the parent to ensure his or her safety. Encourage your teen to have dates at the house, or in your presence, so that you can see if your child and/or their date are treating each other appropriately. Insist your teen double-date the first few times they go out with a new person. Develop a rule that, before leaving on a date, they know and tell you the exact plans for the evening and what time they will be home. Remind them to not consume alcohol or drugs, because they will weaken your ability to react appropriately. And always encourage your teen to trust their instincts. Tell them that if a situation makes them uncomfortable, try to be calm and think of a way to remove yourself from the situation (and that you’re willing to pick them up anytime, anywhere, no questions asked).
What If Your Teen Is Experiencing Dating Violence?
Parents should be on the lookout for physical signs of injury, truancy, falling grades, changes in personality, emotional outbursts, isolation and indecision. If you see these signs, try to communicate with your teen in an open and honest way. If your teen denies any violence or agrees that there are some signs but that they don’t believe their date will become violent, then give them the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline as a “just in case” and tell them that this is a confidential call where they can talk to someone about the situation. Brainstorm some ideas of actions that they can take if their date ever becomes abusive. For example, help them decide on some adults they feel are safe to tell, enroll them in a self-defense class, or encourage your teen to always carry their cell phone and they can text you without a message to let you know that they are in trouble.
If your teen tells you that he or she is the victim of dating violence, stay calm and do not threaten his or her dating partner. They key is remind your teen how much you care about them and then get them the help they need. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or other local resource to obtain psychological counseling and/or other professional help for your child. If you believe your child may be in danger, contact local law enforcement. Be sure to take precautions for his or her safety, such as keeping a journal of the abuse and the actions you take towards preventing it, identifying safe adults your child can go to, changing your child’s route to school each day, and using a buddy system to get to classes.
What if Your Teen is Being Violent?
If you believe your teen is being abusive, you MUST get psychological counseling for your child. Each time a young person is violent and there are no negative consequences, that violent behavior is being reinforced. If they do not get help, perpetrators may develop lifelong patterns of unhealthy, unhappy relationships. Praise your teen whenever he or she is kind or respectful to others. Talk about ways your teen can maintain his or her wants or need without using abusive behaviors. Keep communication lines open.
If you know a teen who is the victim of dating violence and needs help or information about local resources, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is offering “DATING MATTERS,” a free, online course available to parents, educators, school personnel, youth leaders, and others working to improve the health of teens. It features interviews with leading experts, dynamic graphics and interactive exercises, and compelling storytelling to describe what teen dating violence is and how to prevent it. http://www.vetoviolence.org/datingmatters/