February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. This is such an important topic for parents to be aware of, but can tend to be overlooked. Unfortunately, teen dating violence may be more prevalent than we recognize or want to acknowledge. But the more we talk about and become aware of the realities of dating violence, the more opportunity we have to break the cycles of abuse in our society – and our families. We cannot change what we are not aware of.
For those of you who are parents or caregivers, when your teen begins dating, you experience feelings of anticipation, maybe some hesitation, and perhaps even fear. What if my teen has their heart broken? What if they are mistreated? Can I protect them? Will they be okay? Some of us are afraid our teens will have the same path we did, and experience violence at the hands of their partner. For those of you who have experienced domestic violence, this is a very real and terrifying reality.
Raising teenagers is challenging in the best of circumstances, but can be especially so when they begin to date. Whether you have a teenager now, or will in the future, below are some guidelines for parents/caregivers as you navigate your way through this time of life. Remember that you don’t have to go at this alone. We are here to support you.
What is Dating Violence:
- Studies indicate that upwards of 18.5% of teenagers report having been physically harmed by a boyfriend or girlfriend over the past 12 months. Emotional and psychological abuse rates are higher, revealing that as many as 76% of teens report having experienced this type of abuse.
- National statistics indicate that 33% of adolescents in America experience some form of sexual, physical or psychological dating abuse.
- Dating violence can occur either in person, through electronic devices, or online.
- Teen Dating Violence includes:
- Physical violence: Hitting, kicking, using any type of object, or pushing. The abuse can be actual and cause harm or be attempted physical aggression.
- Sexual violence: Forcing another person to engage in any kind of sexual act when that person does not give consent or is unable to give consent. This type of violence can also involve technology through, for example, sending sexual pictures without consent.
- Psychological violence or aggression: Exerting control or power over the other person. This includes manipulation, jealousy, “gaslighting”, etc., and can be both overt or subtle. This type of abuse can be more difficult to recognize.
- Stalking: Making or maintaining contact with or giving unwanted attention to another person. This behavior is usually repeated and causes emotional distress including fear for one’s safety.
Teenage dating violence is a multifaceted reality, in part because of their developmental stage of life. As we know, adolescents experience significant physical and hormonal changes and are not yet relating to the world with a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which supports decision-making. Teens are susceptible to peer pressures and the deep desire to be liked or fit in. As many of us have or will experience, “friends” become the most important thing for our teens. And emotions can run so high – feelings of infatuation or “young love” can be more intense than in any other time of life. All of these things contribute to why teens can be so vulnerable to dating violence.
Proactive things you can do:
There are things parents/caregivers can do at any time to set the foundation for what our teens may face in the future. This includes:
- Staying present to them – and aware. Life is full of distractions and business, but the teens in our lives need us more than they realize. Keep your eyes and ears open to the things they say and do. Stay engaged in their lives.
- Discussing healthy relationships -. Talk with your teen about what healthy relationships look like. What are their values and expectations? What are “red” and “green” flags? Talk about peer pressure, boundaries, and even some of your personal experiences around healthy (or not-so-healthy) relationships.
- Discussing family guidelines – Discuss curfew, communicate about where your teen is spending their time, etc. Remind them that as they get older, freedom will be given as they show responsibility.
- Your teenager might get frustrated and resist these conversations. Remember that, more often than not, parental involvement actually creates feelings of safety and of being loved. So, don’t be deterred by their pushback
- Offering them solutions and options, should they find themselves being mistreated or abused. Talk about what they can do, who they can talk to, etc, if this were to occur. Make a plan.
- Getting to know their friends and dating partners – Have them over to your home. Stay involved, so if you need to be involved more deliberately, you may be able to do so with greater ease.
- Creating an open, emotionally safe dynamic, where they feel free to ask questions and discuss things. This is so important, and not always easy. Do what you can to engage in your own personal healing if this is difficult or triggering for you.
- Reassuring them that you are always here for them. Let your teen know, often if you can, that you love them and that they can come to you about anything. Say the words out loud, even if you think they already know.
If your teen is experiencing relationship violence (or you suspect this):
- Be willing to have the hard conversations. It can be scary to bring things up, especially things that feel difficult or vulnerable. Take the risk. Lean in. Do so with kindness and gentleness, letting your teen know how much you love them.
- If one conversation doesn’t have an impact, have another. Write them a letter. Keep leaning in, and look for times to share your concerns. This can be easier said than done! It may be helpful to have support from a professional to navigate this.
- Trust your gut. If your gut is telling you something is off, trust it. Get curious – ask questions.
- Avoid “I told you so” language. Doing this will only push them away. Hold a non-judgemental space for them. This will allow for an open door where your teen is more likely to open up.
- Take care of YOU. What do you need to stay available and engaged with your teen? How are you managing fear and emotions? Are you becoming overwhelmed by it all? It is so important to take care of yourself.
- Get support – from trusted friends and family, as well as from professionals. If you believe or know that your teen is experiencing dating violence, it can feel overwhelming. Talk about it. Let others in.
If you have a teen who is or you suspect is experiencing dating violence, there is hope. We have coaches who are available to walk with you. Please reach out. You don’t have to do this alone.
Written by: Jessica Mitchell, MS, Marriage and Family Therapy/Life Coach
- American Psychological Association (APA); 10/1/23
- Office of Juvenial Jusitice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Teen Dating Violence, 1/22