Adolescence is a rocky time. Our kids are changing physically, emotionally, and mentally. It can be confusing for both teens and their parents. Many teens also start dating during this time, making everything more complicated.
How can parents talk to their kids about dating and intimate partner violence? What are the warning signs that your teen might be in an unhealthy relationship? And what can you do if abuse is already happening?
Rates of Violence in Teenage Relationships
Dating and intimate partner violence can happen to anyone: star students, athletes, and seemingly independent teenagers are not immune.
A 2019 survey found that about 1 in 12 teens reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from a romantic partner. Female students experienced violence at a higher rate. Those who identify as LGBTQ+ were also more likely to experience dating or intimate partner violence.
Starting the Conversation
As parents and caregivers, these statistics might feel frightening. But we can help our children identify unhealthy behaviors, prevent domestic abuse from happening, and get our children help when they do experience abuse.
Start with a conversation. Talk about boundaries, what a healthy relationship looks like, and what is and is not acceptable behavior from a partner. If your teen is already in a relationship, ask about the dynamics, what they like about the other person, and what it means to feel safe and respected with a partner.
When discussing dating and intimate partner violence with your teen, it’s important to listen intently. Refrain from judgment, even if you disagree with what your child tells you. Being judgmental or lecturing your child will only make them less likely to confide in you in the future.
Creating an open dialogue is vital to helping your child feel safe with you. They might not tell you everything right away, but building that trust helps them know they can talk to you when they’re ready.
Need some conversation starters to help you talk to your teen? Check out this link from the Futures Without Violence organization.
What Healthy Relationships Look Like
Modeling a healthy relationship isn’t always possible, but talking about healthy relationships is. Have an ongoing dialogue with your child about their own expectations from a partner, what they see as respectful and caring behavior, and what they think constitutes abuse.
Point out examples of both healthy and unhealthy relationships when you see them. These examples can be anywhere, from close family members to people in public to relationships in movies or on television.
Know the Warning Signs
If your teen is dating, it’s essential to know the signs of potential abuse. Even teenagers who are usually very open and honest with their parents might hide the abuse. Just as many adult abuse victims keep the violence a secret, the emotions surrounding the abuse might prevent teenage victims from telling someone what they’re experiencing.
The following are potential signs that your teen is experiencing abuse:
- Changes in sleep habits
- Changes in eating habits
- Physical symptoms with no clear cause (headaches, stomach problems, or other pain)
- Emotional or angry outbursts
- New or worsening aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Giving up things that are important to them
- Spending all their time with a romantic partner and no time with other friends or family
- Injuries that they can’t explain or try to minimize
Click here to read our blog about recognizing domestic violence in children, teens, and young adults.
How to Get Help
Just like adults, teenagers often need help leaving an abusive relationship.
If you suspect your teen is already involved in an unhealthy relationship, act quickly. There are plenty of domestic violence advocacy groups throughout the nation, and there is likely one near you. Counselors from these agencies can help you and your child identify abusive behaviors, create a safety plan, and connect your family with vital resources.
Of course, if your teen is in physical danger, do not wait: call 911. There are plenty of legal options to keep your child and your family protected from an abuser.
It’s Never Too Early
You don’t have to wait until your kid starts dating to talk about intimate partner violence. In fact, you should have these discussions long before they enter a relationship.
Age-appropriate conversations can start at any time. Talk about consent (“you don’t have to give me a hug unless you want to.”), anger management (“are you feeling angry? Why don’t you go sit in your room until you feel calm enough to talk.”) and healthy relationships (“someday if you start dating someone, make sure they treat you like an equal. You should always feel safe and respected”).
The earlier your child learns what is and is not acceptable behavior, the better equipped they will be to recognize abusive relationships as they get older.
Have a teenager in your life? Share the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline with them today. This helpline is an offshoot of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It gives teenagers and young adults 24/7 access to professional counselors and resources. Teens can call, text, or chat online.