February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness month and 1 in 3 American teenagers will experience physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner before high school graduation. It’s not a matter of if it’s happening in middle school and high schools; it’s a matter of who is it happening to, and who is an abuser. Additionally, females between the ages of 16-24 are 3 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than at any other age. These alarming statistics apply to any and all definitions of dating: in-person or online, casual or serious. They’re also completely preventable.
Teenagers in Somerset County schools have asked us, “Why don’t adults take our romantic relationships seriously?” They WANT to talk about relationship dynamics. Their curiosity and exploration aren’t going to end. Information is best coming from trusted adults, including family members and professionals that work with them. So, what can you do to help?
First, it’s useful to know the warning signs of an abusive relationship. Simply put, abuse is a pattern of behaviors used to gain power and control over another person in a dating relationship. It can take on many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, financial, verbal, digital, and stalking.
Possible warning signs that your preteen/teen is in an abusive relationship:
- Acting nervous or fearful of a romantic partner’s reaction
- Being worried when they can’t text/call partner back immediately
- Less interaction and more isolation from friends and family
- Emphasis on how partner wants them to dress and/or act
- Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Giving unusual explanations for injuries or bruises
- Making excuses and apologizing for their partner’s behavior
- Depression and anxiety
There is much prevention work that you can do with little effort to demonstrate to preteens and teenagers that you care.
1. Be OPEN and ATTENTIVE. Set aside time privately with your teen to give your undivided attention. Put away phones and converse in an environment you’re both comfortable in.
2. Assess your own values ahead of time. Teens might ask you questions about how you view relationships. How should people behave when they disagree? How should relationship decisions be made? Have you ever been jealous in a relationship? What’s a healthy way to act when you’re jealous? Be ready to answer potentially tough questions as honestly as possible.
3. Discuss and model characteristics of healthy relationships. Partners should remain on equal footing, make major decisions together, respect each other’s boundaries, and lead lives outside of the relationship. Each partner has rights and responsibilities, including:
- I have the right not to be abused or bullied by my partner.
- I have the right to “fall out of love” with someone.
- I have the right to grow as an individual and not be criticized for it.
- I have the right to say “no.”
- I have the right to be respected and loved, and to live a peaceful life.
- I have the responsibility not to abuse or bully my partner.
- I cannot blame anyone but myself if I am abusive, and I have the responsibility to find help.
- I will recognize, accept, and value my own needs.
- It is my responsibility to understand that the relationship is only one part of my life.
- I am responsible for my own life.
You can have similar conversations with children of all ages to prevent all kinds of violence. Healthy friendships and relationships have nearly identical dynamics, and there is a distinct connection between bullying and teen dating abuse. Prevention work starts with you.
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4. Regularly discuss the media’s relationship portrayals. Since they are new to dating, preteens and teens may have unrealistic expectations of relationships based on overwhelming media influences that emphasize jealousy, control, extreme drama, and stalking behaviors as signs of love.
5. Monitor social media use and have open discussions about drawing technological boundaries. When is TOO much communication a problem for your teen? Too little? Constant access to technology blurs lines about acceptable amounts of communication (“textual harassment”). Assuming another’s identity and spreading false rumors or incriminating photos is much easier to do with social media. An abuser may also take advantage of their partner’s GPS phone tracking.
Key Discussion Points
- Love is NOT abuse or violence. It should feel good!
- Each person in a relationship deserves respect and has rights and responsibilities.
- Just because it’s in the media or happening in a friend group doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
- Jealousy happens in relationships, but you don’t need to be jealous to show love.
- It’s never too late to talk about dating abuse.