Talking To Teens About Dating Violence

Kayce Singletary joined the staff of STSM in January 2012 as Prevention Education Coordinator and was promoted to the position of Community Education Director in January 2013. Kayce is passionate about educating teens and adults on violence prevention and healthy communication.

February is the month of love. It is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. So with all of the focus on love and relationships, there is no better time to start a conversation with your child about his or her relationships. Your child is probably already dating - perhaps more seriously than you realize. Eighty-nine percent of teenagers between age 13 and 18 say they have been in dating relationships. And while it may seem like innocent puppy love to you, relationships between teenagers can seem incredibly intense and all-consuming to them.

Though it may be uncomfortable for you, adults must understand and accept the realities of teen relationships and sexuality in order to make a real impact on the issue of teen dating and sexual violence. Don’t let your discomfort with the topic blind you to the possible warning signs of relationship abuse or stop you from communication with your child.

How to initiate conversations about dating and violence with your teen:

Find an appropriate setting to have the conversation. Never tell your teen you want to talk when you are in front of other people, except perhaps your child’s other parent or guardian. Set aside some alone time with your teen. You will get answers if you set up a comfortable environment and listen respectfully and non-judgmentally.

Set realistic expectations for the conversation. First, you want to have productive conversations. This means that through the process of your conversation, you want to support your child and confirm that you are a good resource and a non-judgmental listener. Second, you want to give your child realistic strategies for confronting the problem effectively. Share your own experiences, especially the ones when you were your teen’s age, made mistakes and learned from them. Avoid talking about what you have recently experienced because you need to maintain boundaries. They need a parent figure, not a friend. The hard reality is that you can only try to give them the skills and support that set the foundation for doing it themselves.

Pay attention to signs that your teen wants to talk to you. Anytime your teenager wants to talk to you, drop everything and pay attention. Watch for signs of your teen wanting to talk, such as if your teen hangs around where you are but doesn’t necessarily say anything, or if your teen says he or she doesn’t feel well but there doesn’t seem to be anything physically wrong. Notice if your teen tries to get you alone or away from others - volunteering to drive somewhere with you, for example. If your teen wants to talk to you but also couches it as ‘no big deal,’ don’t believe it. Just by bringing it up, he or she is already telling you that it is a big deal.

REMEMBER: One conversation is not enough. Multiple conversations throughout their teen years (and childhood) is ideal!

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!

Possible questions to get the conversation going:

“How are things going?”  Make your first question a general one, rather than one related specifically to dating violence—otherwise you might put your teen on the spot. Keep an eye on the goal of the conversation. For example, you might hear, “Why do you care all of a sudden?” Remember, underneath the provocative tone your child is telling you something. Beyond the problems he or she may be having with friends, your child wants you around more. Before you go any further, it is critical to acknowledge these feelings and then listen. (Wiseman, Rosalind. Co founder of The Empower Program)

“What are your friends dating relationships like?”  What’s the difference between “going together,” “talking,” “dating,” “hooking up,” “being committed?” How long do your teen’s peers stay together? Do they make any kind of commitment to each other? Are there certain things boys want that girls don’t and vice versa. Your teen may have very set notions about the roles of males and females. A boy may have the mistaken impression that guys are always in control while girls are supposed to follow along. You may be happy to hear your teen thinks mutual respect is a key part of any relationship. You will only find out by asking.

“Have you ever seen abusive behavior between two people who are going out?” Here’s your chance to define “abusive behaviors” or “violence” and compare your definition to your teenager’s. There are four forms of abuse: VERBAL, EMOTIONAL/MENTAL, PHYSICAL, AND SEXUAL ABUSE. (ECONOMIC ABUSE tends to occur in older populations as well). These forms may manifest in many different ways and may be different each time an abusive situation occurs, although, it is important to also recognize a pattern or cycle of the violence. Remember: abuse isn’t just hitting or shoving; it is also name-calling, put downs and other forms of manipulation and/or isolation. One in four middle school girls report knowing someone in an abusive relationship and one in four high school girls report being in an abusive relationship at some point (CDC-Causing Pain: Real Stories about dating abuse and violence).

“Why do you think someone would abuse someone they were dating?” Society repeatedly tells boys that in order to be a man, they must be powerful, strong and in control. In relationships, this control can occur as emotional abuse, threats, possessiveness and jealousy, intimidation and isolation, and physically violent behaviors. Your discussion with your teen may bring up some uncomfortable disagreements or questions about what you as a parent really believe. What examples is your teen learning in your house and in your interactions? Be honest and open about your thoughts, questions and answers. A home with violence creates an environment that thrusts children in the cycle of violence. They have a higher potential to be an aggressor or a victim in future relationships because their model for relationships are not healthy characteristics.

“Why might a person stay in an abusive relationship?” Be very careful about this question. You do not want to convey that it’s ever anyone’s fault for staying in an abusive relationship. These are complex issues and even in teen relationships there are many reasons why victims stay in/go back to abusive relationships.

  • In high school, status and self-esteem are often intricately linked to relationships.
  • Social media plays a big role in teen relationships and provides a way for the abuser to contact, and possibly continue to harass, stalk, humiliate and intimidate the victim.
  • Teen relationships are not currently protected under SC Criminal Domestic Violence statutes.
  • The abuser may be in the victim’s class and school making it more difficult to get out of a dangerous situation/relationship.
  • He/she may be in love and want the violence to end, but not the relationship.
  • A teen can feel like no one understands the abuser like they do.
  • He/she might fear that if you find out you won’t let the couple date any longer.
  • He/she may not have healthy relationships to compare this to, and may see abusive relationships modeled at home. She/he might think this is what “being in love” is like.
  • He/she might fear bringing shame to the family or that you will be disappointed.

“What makes a relationship healthy?” A healthy relationship is one in which the partners have a commitment to making the relationship work, and at the same time they respect each other’s individual and personal boundaries. A healthy relationship is also one in which you would not hurt the other person emotionally, physically, or sexually.

“What can you do if you have a friend who is threatened—or a friend who is abusive?” Talking to a friend who is dealing with relationship violence can make an enormous difference to her/him. She/he is probably feeling very isolated and alone. When talking to this friend, there are several key things your teen should keep in mind:

  • listen to what she/he has to say and don’t be judgmental;
  • let the victim know you are there for them whenever they want to talk; and that you are worried about them;
  • let the victim know you won’t tell anyone unless he/she wants them to (unless you fear for their safety);
  • be specific about why you are concerned;
  • let the victim know about behavior you have seen and how it made you feel;
  • find someone knowledgeable about abuse that the victim can talk to and volunteer to go with him/her.

Most people who hurt their partners are in denial about their actions and don’t consider themselves “abusers.” Reaching out and talking to a friend who is being violent in his/her relationship is truly an act of friendship, though it may seem like the hardest thing to do. When talking to a friend who is being abusive, here are some tips your child can keep in mind:

  • be specific about what you saw and let your friend know that you won’t stand by and let the behavior continue;
  • make sure the abuser realizes that his/her actions have consequences and he/she could get into serious trouble—from getting expelled from school to going to jail;
  • urge the abuser to get help from a counselor, coach, or any trusted adult and offer to go with him/her if they want extra support.

“What kind of messages about dating abuse and relationships do we see in the media?” This is where your values come in. Listen to your child’s music and talk about the messages you hear. What posters hang on their walls? Are they heroes whose values you agree with? If not, talk to your teen and find out why negative messages are resonating with him or her. Explain your views, boundaries and expectations for dating relationships and listen to what your child has to say. It may tell you a lot about the pressures and social dynamics your teen is facing every day.

“If your teen is dating someone, ask ‘How is your relationship going?” If your teen is not dating someone, ask “When you think about going out with someone, what are some behaviors that would be okay and what are some that you would have a problem with?” When you ask this, they are setting boundaries, which are important in future relationships. Be prepared for the possibility that there is indeed violence in your son’s or daughter’s relationship. How would you respond? You may feel guilty, blaming yourself for not seeing the problem sooner. Before doing anything else, stop, take a breath and remember that this is really about your teen and not about you.

Start by letting your son or daughter know that you love them. Thank them for trusting you and tell him or her that they can always talk to you about anything. Ending any relationship takes time; it can be even harder when abuse is involved. While it may feel frustrating and scary, it is not a good idea to forbid your son or daughter from seeing their partner. This won’t make them safe; it will just make them stop confiding in you about the problem. Ask your child, “What can we do to help you?” Your son or daughter may not have the answer, but he/she needs to be in control. Find a counselor who specializes in teen dating violence and sexual violence and continue to support him/her by being loving, open and non-judgmental.

“Where can you go to find help if you or a friend needs it?” Where does your teen look for help? It could be a relative, friend of the family, clergy member, teacher, school counselor, coach or even the police. Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, your local rape crisis center (800-491-7273), can help you find support.

After the questions—and answers…

Communication should be an ongoing part of your relationship with your child. Revisit these questions over time and keep checking in with your teenager. Let them know that you are there for them and that you will listen, talk, support and accept them as they navigate the challenging waters of adolescence. These conversations can help your child stay ahead of the game in forming healthy, respectful, non-violent relationships.