As your child gets older, they will likely develop important relationships, including romantic ones. We think that it is great that you are thinking about these relationships and are interested in learning more to help keep your child safe and healthy!
Romantic or dating relationships may look different today than they did when you were younger. Even if your child doesn’t have a “boyfriend”, “girlfriend,” or a “significant other,” it is possible that they are still engaging in romantic relationships. Your child may be “talking to”, “hanging out with”, or “hooking up with” someone, and even though these can seem like more casual relationships, they are just as important and have the potential to be healthy, unhealthy, or abusive.
As a parent, it is important that you support your child in having healthy relationships, you can recognize the signs of an abusive relationship, and you can talk to your child about teen dating violence.
What is Teen Dating Violence?
Dating Violence refers to relationships with any type of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, and digital). All types of abuse are serious, and some may be harder to recognize than others. Anyone can be a victim of abuse or behave in an abusive way regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual practices.
Physical abuse is when someone touches a person intentionally in an unwanted way. Physical abuse can be painful, leave a bruise, or cause an injury, but it doesn’t always. All types of physical abuse are serious. Some examples of physical abuse are hitting, kicking, pushing, throwing objects, choking, grabbing, and using a weapon.
Emotional (or verbal) abuse is when a person says or does something to make a person feel afraid or bad about themselves. It also includes constant monitoring or stalking. Some people believe that emotional abuse isn’t as serious as physical abuse, but we know that isn’t true. Experiencing emotional abuse can affect a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Some examples of emotional abuse are threatening, insulting, bullying, blaming, and yelling.
Sexual abuse refers to any unwanted sexual contact or any sexual contact when someone doesn’t have the ability to control their sexual activity. All sexual contact requires enthusiastic consent. Sexual abuse doesn’t have to be violent or leave a mark. People can experience sexual abuse from anyone, including a stranger, friend, dating partner, or a spouse. Some types of sexual abuse are harder to recognize, like refusing to use condoms when asked or saying, “if you loved me, you’d have sex with me.” Other examples of sexual abuse are sexual contact with someone who cannot consent, forcing your partner to have sex with someone else, and using a weapon or physical force to make someone perform sexual acts.
Digital abuse is when a partner uses technology to bully, harass, control, stalk, or intimidate a partner. This type of abuse can be harder to recognize since it typically occurs in private. Some examples of digital abuse are demanding to have passwords to a partner’s devices, controlling how a partner uses social media, using technology to know the location of a partner, or sending insulting messages.
How common is Teen Dating Violence?
Dating violence is common among teenagers and young adults. It is hard to know exactly how many people experience dating violence because many victims never tell anyone about the abuse.
- About 1.5 million high school students report physical abuse from a partner in the US every year.
- Around 10% of high school students have experienced sexual abuse.
- People between the ages of 18 and 24 years old have the highest rates of stalking in the US.
- More than half of people who experience abuse in adult relationships report their first experience with dating violence occurred between the ages of 11 and 24.
Because this is such a common issue, it is likely your child knows someone affected by dating violence.
What are the warning signs of Teen Dating Violence?
Abusive relationships don’t always leave physical marks or bruises. In many cases, the signs of an abusive relationship can be hard to recognize and can even be vague or non-specific.
Parents can play an important role in preventing and addressing teen dating violence by being able to recognize the warning signs.
Your child may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship if:
- Your child’s partner acts jealous or possessive
- Your child has unexplained marks or bruises
- Your child’s partner calls, texts, or emails excessively
- Your child is anxious or depressed
- Your child stops participating in things they used to do (sports, extracurricular activities, music)
- Your child is spending less time with friends or family
- Your child dresses differently or their partner tells them what to wear
- our child has frequent medical complaints, such as headaches, abdominal pain, or frequent sexually transmitted infections
- Your child receives frequent expensive gifts from their partner
How do I talk to my child about dating, relationships, and dating violence?
It is important to talk to your child about dating and relationships, with an emphasis on what makes relationships healthy. It is also important to talk to your child about sexual consent. We recommend doing this before your child starts having sex, so they are prepared to have safe and consensual sex when the time is right.
Modeling healthy relationships for your child at home is an equally important way to teach your child about relationships. Similarly, acknowledging examples of unhealthy or abusive behaviors can help teach your child about dating violence.
Take time to educate yourself about teen relationships and dating violence. This may be a topic that you aren’t familiar with, and that is okay! Reading this guide is a great first step. There are many resources available (see below), and you can even ask your child’s healthcare provider about how to bring up this topic. Your child may feel more comfortable talking to someone else about dating and relationships. If that is the case, don’t feel bad. Just bringing up these topics lets your child know you are willing to talk when they are ready. Take the opportunity to tell your child where they can find accurate information about these topics, like trusted adults, healthcare providers, or online resources (listed below).
My child isn’t in a relationship or dating. Should I talk to my child about teen dating violence?
Yes! Even if your child isn’t dating now, they likely will in the future or know someone who is. Talking about healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships and sexual consent early and often is an important step in preventing teen dating violence.
I think my child may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. What should I do?
Show your concern and listen to your child.
- It is important to provide support and believe what your child is telling you. Make sure you tell your child the abuse is not normal and is not their fault.
Avoid punishment and ultimatums.
- Your child may not be ready to end the relationship, or it may not be safe for them to leave. Instead of saying, “If you don’t break up with them, you’re grounded” try saying, “You don’t deserve to be treated like this. How can I help you?”
Don’t focus on the partner.
- If you talk badly about your child’s partner, they may be less likely to ask you for help in the future. Instead, point out specific behaviors that are unhealthy or abusive to help your child recognize these. For instance, “I noticed you don’t hang out with your friends anymore. Your partner shouldn’t control who you can spend time with.”
- You may want to protect your child and confront their partner. Instead focus on how to support your child and get them help. You are unlikely to make their partner change their actions, and this may make the situation worse.
Make a plan together.
- You can help guide your child, but the decision to leave a relationship is ultimately one they have to make. You can refer them to online resources (see below), set up an appointment to talk to their healthcare provider, or help them create a safety plan.
- There are many resources available to help support you and your child. In addition to healthcare providers, hotlines with trained peer advocates are available 24/7 and can be a great first step for getting more information and helping to keep your child safe.
- National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
- 1-866-331-9474 or 1-866-331-8453 for TTY
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY
- LGBTQ-Friendly Resources
- The GLBT Talkline: 1-888-843-4564
- GLBT Youth Talkline: 1-800-246-7743
- The Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
- Go to Loveisrespect.org for the most updated information on texting/chatting with a peer advocate.