How to Talk to Your Teen About Dating Violence

Talking to your teenager about relationship red flags and dating violence is a must because both are more common than parents may know. Here experts share tips on ways to make this an ongoing conversation.

Teen Dating Violence
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When I first started dating as a teen, my loving and protective parents felt like the enemy. They imposed a strict curfew and promoted abstinence until marriage without much room to talk about alternatives. Although my mom supported me when I sought birth control, I felt the need to lie about why I wanted it. And much of the normal sexual milestones I experienced as a teen were drenched in guilt and secrecy. Instead of having candid conversations about relationships, we often said nothing. I don't blame my parents for this or think our situation was unique: Their parents didn't talk to them about these topics.

Talking to your teenager about relationship red flags and dating violence is a must because the scary reality is that dating violence is common. According to a recent national survey, nearly 7 in 10 teens said they'd experienced some form of abuse in the past year. While domestic violence may bring to mind bumps and bruises, the vast majority of teens said they'd experienced psychological abuse, followed by sexual and physical abuse.

It's important to note that these conversations can be uncomfortable and scary for you before you even sit down with your kids. Many people have healing and learning left to do around our own intimate relationships. If you have a history of abuse or unhealthy relationships, "do your own work and educate yourself on what healthy relationships are," says Lonna Davis, director of Futures Without Violence's child and youth program. Try teletherapy, a virtual support group, or self-help tools like videos from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and love is respect. These discussions may be triggering so take care of yourself.

When Talk to Your Teen About Dating Violence

Before starting conversations with your kids, know that what they're prepared for can vary depending on the individual and their maturity level. "Generally speaking, the younger the child—developmentally or age-wise—the more concrete, the better," says Davis. For example, you can begin teaching children in elementary school about setting and respecting boundaries with friends and never using violence as a response to conflict. As they grow older and begin developing crushes in middle school and high school, conversation starters can shift to more complex topics like what they want and value in a dating partner.

Comprehensive sexual health education and youth anti-violence programs like Coaching Boys Into Men can help address dating violence. But many communities don't have them, so teens look to parents and trusted adults as role models. Even with these programs as resources, it's essential to combat teen dating violence proactively at home. "The earlier we intervene with information and support, the better we can prevent abuse," says Angela Lee, director of love is respect, a dating hotline for teens.

It's important to discuss healthy relationships and rules of consent with your kids early and often, but middle school is generally a good time to begin having chats about dating specifically, Davis says.

You might be tempted to give one big talk about warning signs of abuse to look out for, but this approach is outdated and could backfire. Instead of scheduling an intimidating sit-down, keep up an ongoing conversation about dating to empower your teen to build healthy relationships and make decisions that will keep them safe—though it's important to acknowledge that someone can do all of the "right" things and still become a victim of abuse. That fault is on the abuser and not the victim.

Talking About The Red Flags

It's vital that adults point out red flags to their teens when talking about relationships. It can be hard to see it in the moment, but explain to your teen that intense jealousy, passionate fighting, and love bombing—a.k.a. excessive displays of affection far too soon in a relationship—are early signs of an abusive relationship and ones our culture tends to romanticize. Get to know more signs with them and ask them to explain to you what they want in a relationship.

If your child seems off or not like themselves—they're depressed, anxious, no longer interested in friends and hobbies that used to bring them joy—this can sometimes indicate they're being abused. "We all worry when all of a sudden grades are dropping or activities change," says Davis. "Sometimes, what looks like depression is tied to the relationship they're in."

Gently let your teen know you've noticed a change and encourage them to explain what's going on without being pushy. When you spot abusive behaviors in your teen's relationship, like name-calling or their time and attention being dominated by a partner's texts and calls, be clear and firm that they don't deserve to be treated or controlled in that way. Nor is it okay to treat someone else that that way.

Model Healthy Relationships

Strive to apply what you've learned about yourself by practicing the key elements of a healthy relationship: respect, communication, trust, boundaries, honesty, and equality. For example, Lee says, "Encourage teens to think through their own boundaries, what they're comfortable with, and what's important to them to ensure they develop a respect for not only their partner's boundaries but also their own."

Instead of barging into your teen's bedroom, knock and request permission before coming in. Don't demand hugs—ask for them, and accept their answers and the signals they give you. This might not be the way you were raised, and cultural norms vary family to family. But these are a few small, simple ways you can model consent. The goal is to empower kids to feel comfortable saying and accepting the word "no."

Abusive relationships often make teens feel off-kilter as partners take up more of their time, shrink their social circle, and coerce them into doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do like skipping class or quitting their favorite sport. Before you reach a crisis point like this, aim to show your child the value of cultivating a full life as an individual with their own interests, passions, and friends.

"Some of the education around healthy relationships shouldn't start in a crisis," says Davis, who suggests parents normalize talking about this using questions like, "How can you balance your goals and dreams with your partner's when you start dating someone?"

With this foundation, your child's better prepared to recognize something's wrong if a dating partner begins to take away pieces of who they are. Davis suggests that gentle comments like, "I've noticed you've been spending less time on your art. Do you feel like you're losing your balance a little?" could help them find their center again.

"It's about helping kids do their own critical thinking about relationships and their role in them so they don't lose themselves," says Davis.

Talk Openly and Honestly About Dating, Relationships, and Sex

Even if it feels like your kids are tuning you out most of the time, a recent survey of 3,000 teens on domestic violence shows the opposite is true: "Overwhelmingly, the teens that we surveyed said the number one person that they listened to about this is their parent," says Davis, even over their friends.

Instead of lecturing your child, be authentic. Share age-appropriate stories of dating and sex, and encourage them to sort out their own values. Help them determine what's healthy and unhealthy on their own.

Remember: There's no need to designate a special time for this. In fact, conversations with reduced eye contact like on a drive or walk, in a shared journal, or messenger app often make it easier for teens to connect. "Some kids are more comfortable talking when they don't have to look at you," says Davis. "It's a way to communicate that doesn't feel so loaded."

There's so much to share through entertainment, too, whether that means buying your child a book as a present, adding TV shows and movies to your watchlist, or asking them why they like a certain song—rather than criticizing the lyrics.

Advocates recommend Sex Education (a show that addresses sexual assault with a compelling scene of friendship and solidarity as well as a range of sexual experiences, including the challenges and joys of queer relationships) and Maid (a memoir by Stephanie Land and miniseries on surviving emotional abuse and poverty) are both good conversation starters.

Reach Out For Help—You Don't Have To Do This Alone

It's important to note that Black children report physical violence like hitting and slapping at higher rates compared to their white and Latinx peers, and LGBTQIA+ kids are also at a heightened risk of all types of violence. For marginalized children, additional obstacles like internal conflicts about their sexuality or identity, fears that no one will believe them, and difficulty receiving legal aid make it even harder to find the support they need and deserve, says Lee.

If you suspect your child is being hurt by their partner—or causing harm—take a deep breath. Before you do anything else, contact your local advocacy center. You need support and a personalized strategy for your child's circumstances, and the best way to do that is by having a confidential chat with a professionally trained advocate who understands the level of risk they're facing and local laws.

"Make it clear that violence is unacceptable for the survivor and that there are multiple things you can do to support them," says DJ Peay, communications and administrative specialist in the Children and Youth program for Futures Without Violence. Although it's normal to want to protect your child, do not demand they report the violence to authorities or do so on their behalf. This could damage their trust in you or make them feel like they're losing even more control over their own situation (abusers systematically take away power and control from victims—so the last thing you want to do is re-victimize your child by making them feel powerless over their own circumstances). Rather, let them know the decision of whether or how to report is up to them, and offer to arrange a discussion with an advocate to help them further sort out the potential positive and negative consequences of different options.

If your teen continues to shut down the conversation, continue to let them know you're always there for them. "It's hard for kids at this age because they're in a separation phase of 'I can figure this out for myself,' but at the same time, they want their parent's love, encouragement, and safety," says Davis.

Children who use violence, on the other hand, "often try to justify the behaviors and blame the other partner, but you can remind your child that no one can make you act a certain way," says Davis. Should you witness abuse, Peay suggests the following response: "This isn't right, and I want to help you change your behavior so you aren't harming the people around you and so you can feel better with yourself too." If they do not act remorseful or won't stick to a plan to change harmful behaviors, seek help from advocates to figure out next steps.

No matter your child's situation, be gentle and patient, and continue to seek support for yourself as well. It might take time for your child to talk to you and accept help, but be clear that you're there when they're ready.

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