Educating Teens About Healthy Dating Relationships

February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Unfortunately, almost a third of adolescents in the U.S. become victims of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. When teens hear “dating abuse,” they may think the term is limited to severe violence, such as rape or beatings. It’s up to the adults in their lives to let them know that dating abuse includes a wide range of behaviors, including:

  • Physical violence is when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by pushing, hitting, kicking, or using another type of physical force.
  • Sexual violence is forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act and or sexual touching when the partner does not consent or is unable to consent. It also includes non-physical sexual behaviors like posting or sharing sexual pictures of a partner without their consent or sexting someone without their consent.
  • Psychological aggression is the use of verbal and non-verbal communication (in-person or online) with the intent to harm a partner mentally or emotionally and exert control over a partner.
  • Stalking is a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a current or former partner that causes fear or safety concern for an individual victim or someone close to the victim.

Teen dating violence profoundly impacts lifelong health, opportunity, and wellbeing. Unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime. Victims of teen dating violence are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, experience symptoms of depression and anxiety throughout their life, and are at higher risk for victimization in the future.

Teens receive messages about how to behave in relationships from the media and from the peers and adults in their lives. Unfortunately, many times those messages suggest that abusive control in a relationship is acceptable. Teens often think some behaviors, like name calling or jealousy, are a “normal” part of a relationship. That’s way it’s vital that parents explain what a healthy relationship looks like and what types of behaviors are red flags.

Healthy Relationship Skills

Throughout a child’s life, adults should talk about and model healthy relationship skills, which are:

  • Respect: showing consideration for each other’s feelings, individuality, boundaries, and well-being.
  • Honesty: communicating and acting in clear, upfront, truthful ways.
  • Supportive: celebrating each other’s accomplishments and successes and encouraging each other’s interests or goals.
  • Communication: sharing your thoughts and also creating a safe environment for your partner to share their thoughts with you.
  • Equality: having equal say in the relationship, without fear of negative consequences.
  • Anger Management: dealing with uncomfortable emotions in positive, non-violent ways. You can learn more in our previous blog, Anger Management for Teens.
  • Compromise: turning conflict 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 without treading on the rights of others. You can learn more in our previous blog, 5 Ways Parents Can Teach Assertiveness to Teens.

Unhealthy Relationship Warning Signs

Most young people realize that certain behaviors from a friend or partner make them feel bad or angry, but they may not know when the behavior has become unhealthy. Dating abuse is really a pattern of behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Giving examples of what the behaviors may look like in real life will help young people identify them in their own situations.

Teens should know the most common early warning signs of dating abuse: displaying jealousy, requesting passwords to their partner’s devices or accounts, and insisting on spending every free moment together.

Adults should point out that a partner should NOT:

  • be resentful of their accomplishments,
  • make them feel guilty for how they spend their time,
  • try to isolate them from their family or other friends,
  • be condescending of their opinions,
  • gaslight their feelings,
  • say insults, name-calling, or put downs – in social media, in front of friends, or in private,
  • threaten them with violence or sharing private information,
  • monitor their whereabouts and actions,
  • pressure them to do things they don’t want to do,
  • make fun of them for things they like or want to do,
  • be unsupportive of their choices,
  • push, slap, grab, or physically hurt them in any way,
  • be excessively jealous, or
  • make them feel stupid for a decision they made.

Let teens know that the warning signs of dating abuse creep up slowly. No one starts out dating someone they think is likely to become an abuser. The warning signs seem like minor conflicts at first, but they will grow into problems if not checked.

Discuss Relationships from Both Victim and Abuser Perspective

We often assume our primary goal in these types of relationship discussions is to prevent our child from becoming a victim of abuse. While this is very important, it is equally important to prevent our child from becoming an abuser. When teens enter dating relationships, they can act very differently than they would normally because the experience is so emotionally intense and new. When we discuss the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, we need to point out that they should never act these ways with someone they are dating. Explain that excessive jealousy, tracking whereabouts, manipulation, or put-downs are never justified in their relationships.

Don’t ever assume that your teen won’t be abused or become an abuser because of their personality. Just because a teen is shy and sensitive does not mean that they can’t become an abuser, and just because a teen is independent and smart does not mean that they can’t become a victim. It is very important for adults to have these discussions regularly with teens so that they are very clear about what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable in their relationships.

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