"It won't happen to my daughter."
One in three girls in the US is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence. (1)
"My son would never treat someone that way."
Violent behavior often begins between the ages of 12 and 18. (2)
"If someone hurt them, I'm sure they'd tell me."
Only 33% of teens who were in an abusive relationship ever told anyone about the abuse. (3)
As parents, we tell ourselves so many things to protect our hearts and quell our fears. Watching our children grow, become teens, assert their independence, and build lives entirely apart from ours is hard – even heartbreaking – at times. But what if, in allowing our children freedom and protecting our hearts while they separate from us, our false beliefs are allowing us to overlook a critical part of their upbringing?
The truth is, these false beliefs are deeply damaging. And as a result, we're failing our teens. A stunning 81% of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don't know if it's an issue.(4) This lack of awareness, though unintentional, is deeply harmful. We aren't dedicating the necessary time and energy to educating our pre-teens and teens about what healthy relationships look like, their inherent value as individuals, and how to intentionally and safely embark on dating. Often, we assume that demonstrating a healthy marriage, or showing children through our actions how to treat someone we love, is enough to instill in them an awareness and appreciation for appropriate boundaries and healthy behaviors. This assumption is creating a dangerous chasm between our beliefs and their realities.
So, what should we do to better support our teenagers? As with so many things, the solution starts with communication. It can be daunting, both because of the subject matter's gravity and because, typically, teens aren't hugely interested in a serious conversation with mom or dad. It's imperative to push past both our discomfort and teenage resistance. An open, continuous dialogue about healthy relationships and safe dating is essential for every teen's journey to young adulthood.
Fostering an open, honest dialogue is a critical first step when facing the statistics around the repercussions of teen dating violence, which are disturbing. Did you know that half of youth who have been victims of both dating violence and rape attempt suicide, compared to 12.5% of non-abused girls and 5.4% of non-abused boys? (5) This is why prevention is imperative. In order to proactively discourage dating violence, we must face the facts head-on and broach these serious conversations. It’s our mandate as parents to reinforce the importance of self-value, identify healthy boundaries, and encourage a robust support system outside of romantic relationships.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-VALUE
Have you ever asked your son or daughter how they deserve to be treated in a relationship? Or what they believe their best qualities are? How about what they believe their worth is? If not, these questions are a great place to start a conversation around self-value. Healthy relationships begin with self-respect and respect for others. The pre-teen and teen years are formative in establishing behavioral patterns that will continue into adulthood. Just as children need to learn the foundational skills for reading, math, and science, teens need to learn the building blocks of healthy relationships, starting with self-worth.
ESTABLISHING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
Building on self-respect and respect for others, healthy boundaries are a critical component of relationship safety. Insecurity, hormonal swings, and peer pressure create a perfect storm that leaves teens far less confident of their (and others’) boundaries. Ask them what they would do if someone they were dating got jealous of how much time they spent with their friends. How would they handle it if someone they loved was making them feel bad about themselves? How would they respond if their boyfriend or girlfriend was possessive and tried to isolate them from friends and family?
Questions like these are essential because they're open-ended. Rather than giving our kids all the answers, we are working to support them in building clear, critical thinking to help them identify concerning behavior – both in themselves and others – before it becomes a problem. The reality is that all relationships, romantic or not, exist on a spectrum from healthy, to unhealthy, to abusive. The gray area can be incredibly confusing, so the more often we give teens a safe space to explore potential scenarios, responses, and coping strategies, the better off they will be should they encounter these serious situations in real life.
BUILDING A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM
The culmination of the conversation centers around your teen's community. Every person is different – maybe they have a sports team, school choir, or a close-knit group of friends with whom they've grown up. Or perhaps they're insular, independent, and lost in books or art. Tailor your discussion around how to build a trusted support system unique to your child's relationships. As a parent, embrace your own vulnerability, as it will strengthen your connection with your teen and help create a safe space for them to open up. Encourage a balanced dialogue by sharing personal experiences, like what happened when you went through a terrible breakup of your own and who you leaned on to get through the most challenging parts.
As you discuss who they would turn to if they were experiencing inappropriate behavior, abuse, or heartbreak, remember to emphasize that support comes from all corners. Challenge them to think beyond their family and friends to include teachers, coaches, and trusted adults such as pastors or counselors. You can also consider brainstorming a word or phrase together that they can use with you if they're in a difficult situation, either to get your immediate help in the moment or just to let you know that they're struggling and need to talk. Giving your teen realistic avenues to seek support and diminishing barriers to difficult communication is critical in ensuring they'll feel comfortable turning to you.
Set aside time to discuss these critical and potentially difficult aspects of growing up. And when you do, make sure your teen knows you're focused on them and committed to providing connection and support. While your first conversation may not be perfect, simply having it is a step in the right direction. The second time you approach the topic, you may connect further and feel like you're genuinely getting through to them. Don't give up – your child needs you. We can, and must, do more to turn the tide on the statistics around teen dating violence.
Prepare to start this important conversation with your teen by using our Discussion Guide and Worksheet, here.
For more support and tools to guide your discussion with your teen, please visit the My Sister’s House Teen Dating Safety resource page.
If you're an adult victim of domestic violence, please call our 24/7 Crisis Line at (800)273-4673.
If you are a teen in need of dating violence support or advice, please connect with the Love Is Respect program by texting LOVEIS to 22522 or calling (866)331-9474.
"Interpersonal and Physical Dating Violence among Teens" The National Council on Crime and Delinquency Focus.
"The Pathways to Youth Violence; How Child Maltreatment and Other Risk Factors Lead Children to Chronically Aggressive Behavior" American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center
Teenage Research Unlimited
Family Violence Prevention Fund and Advocates for Youth
"Date Violence and Date Rape Among Adolescents: Associations with Disordered Eating Behaviors and Psychological Health, Child Abuse & Neglect" School of Public Health, University of Minnesota