The time has come…your teen wants to date. Naturally, many parents have anxiety about this new development in their child’s life. However, it is important to keep in mind that teen dating is a normal and healthy part of adolescent development.
Relationships can be healthy, unhealthy, abusive or fall somewhere in between. Sometimes it is hard to tell when behaviors cross the line, especially for those with limited dating experience such as tweens and teens.
Teenagers come into my practice every week discussing the behavior of their “jealous boyfriend” or “psycho girlfriend” without realizing that the actions they are describing constitute dating abuse. Unfortunately, unhealthy teen dating relationships involving abuse in its various forms are more common than many parents realize.
In fact, a recent study reports that nearly 1 in 3 teens who have been in dating relationships report experiencing the most serious forms of dating violence including physical abuse, sexual abuse, or receiving threats of physical harm to a partner or self.
The most common characteristic of an abusive relationship is the control that the abusive partner seeks to maintain. This includes attempting to control what the other person wears, where they can go, who their friends can and cannot be, calling them derogatory names, or humiliating them.
Dating abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or verbal. However with teenagers, digital abuse brings about a new wrinkle. Email, texting and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy for an abuser to monitor their partner's activities, spread rumors, make humiliating remarks, and even blackmail via the threat of spreading revealing photos or confidential information.
What is a parent to do? How can you help your teen while not inadvertently pushing them further into the arms of their abuser?
As a parent, your primary job is to help your teen develop a sense of what a healthy relationship looks like and offer support for if their relationship enters the danger zone.
If your child is not yet dating, now is the time to begin discussing the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Similar to the “birds and bees” talk you should begin discussing early on the types of abuse that exist and how some people attempt to control their partners. Ideally, these conversations should be relatively short (just a few minutes each) but revisited multiple times.
Related: When Did Dating Become a Dirty Word?
In the event that your teen is in a relationship that you fear is unhealthy or abusive, there are three main things a parent can do:
First indicate your sincere concern for your teen and let them know you are worried for their safety and why.
If your teen refuses to discuss their relationship with you, offer to connect them with a counselor, therapist, or even a lawyer whom they can speak with in complete confidence.
Believe what your teen tells you. Don't attempt to minimize their situation because they seem young or inexperienced. If your teen confides in you, take what they say seriously, show support, and help them develop an exit strategy for the relationship.
Finally, many early warning signs exist which can signal your teen may be in an abusive relationship. While these signs may also be indicative of other issues including substance abuse or depression, parents should not dismiss them as typical teenage angst. Specifically, parents should take note and seek help if your teen exhibits any of the following:
- Makes mention that their partner being extremely jealous or possessive
Stops spending time with other friends and family
Discontinues participation in extracurricular activities in order to spend more time with their partner
Emails or texts their girlfriend or boyfriend excessively
Seems suddenly withdrawn, depressed or anxious
Begins to dress differently, particularly if it is considerably more provocative or conservative
Often makes excuses for their partner’s behavior
Has unexplained scratches, bruises or injuries.
More from GalTime.com:
- The Link Between Sexting and Sex: What Parents Need to Know
- 5 Ways to Become a Calmer Parent
- Teens and Dating: Choose Your Words Carefully
- Confessions of 'Bad' Moms & Why We're Still Good
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Jerry Weichman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist focused solely on teen and preteen issues. Dr. Jerry is the author of a teen self-help book, “How to Deal,” and a noted public speaker on teen-related topics including parenting, bullying, and adolescent coping skills. Overcoming a lower leg amputation as a child to eventually become a Division I college football player provided Dr. Jerry with unique perspective on coping with—and overcoming—difficulties during the adolescence.