The month of October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We hear a lot about domestic violence in marriages and adult relationships, but today I want to address one of the forms of partner violence that is not often discussed: teen dating violence. Roughly 1 in 13 teens reported experiencing physical dating violence in the last year alone.
The true number of those experiencing teen dating violence is likely much higher than simple statistics show. While teen dating violence isn’t discussed as frequently as adult domestic violence, the facts show how important it is to talk about with your children about this important topic.
How Teens Build their definition of a Healthy Relationship
Many teens begin dating in high school. Through these early relationships, they start to build on their definition of what it means to be in a healthy intimate relationship.
Much to the frustration of many parents, teens often look to peers rather than mom or dad to help them navigate changes and challenges they are experiencing in their lives. This includes challenges in their intimate relationships. The issue with this is that it is likely teens do not fully understand what it means to be in a healthy partnership.
Knowing the Signs to Watch for in Your Teen’s Relationship
When teens experience various forms of violence (both emotional and physical) within these relationships, they may not know what to do. At the same time, they may not even fully understand the unhealthy nature of the violent behavior. Teens may feel afraid and unsure what to do or who to talk to get help.
While their child is struggling, parents may also notice changes in their child that let them know something is wrong (never doubt a parent’s intuition). Unfortunately, teens often feel uncomfortable talking about relationship issues with parents. It can feel like a hopeless and scary place for both teens and their parents. However, there are things that teens and parents can look for to help them determine whether an unhealthy relationship is occurring and resources that can help if there is a concern that the teen is experiencing dating violence.
Are there red flags?
Start by reflecting to see if there are any red flags occurring in your teen’s relationship. There are several red flags that can pop up in a teen relationship that can indicate dating violence is occurring, including:
- Jealousy or jealous behaviors. For example, their partner gets angry when the teen is around other boys/girls.
- Controlling behaviors. The partner might not wanting to them to be around friends or family. Parents may notice that their teen is spending significantly less time with them and their normal friend group.
- Excessive time spent with the partner. Teens might constantly ask parents to spend time with their partner and miss out on other events or potentially fall behind in school.
- Frequent verbal conflict. You might notice consistent arguments between the teen and their partner and more arguments with you as the parent or their friends.
- Lack of belief that their partner respects or loves them for who they are. Teens might believe they have to change to please their partner. Parents might hear their teens voicing more worthless statements (for example, “I am not good enough.”).
Approaching Your Teen Experiencing Teen Dating Violence
It’s important to keep in mind that despite the unhealthy, abusive behaviors, teens in violent relationships often still feel cared for, loved, and trust that they can be vulnerable with their partner (Giordano, Soto, Manning, and Longmore, 2010). This can make it more challenging for teens to listen to or hear parents’ concerns about their relationships. Teens may also feel conflicted about leaving the relationship because of these positive feelings.
When parents approach this discussion, make sure to be non-confrontational. Mental Health Foundations offers steps to help with your conversation.
Five Steps to Keep in Mind when Talking to your Teen
- Attend to the emotion you are seeing in your teen. You will likely see teens feeling more sad/depressed or angry when they are experiencing dating violence. You can simply start by just saying, “I see that something is up.” You are acknowledging that there is something off.
- Name the emotion you are seeing in your teen. For example, “You look sad,” or “I’ve noticed that you have seemed angry lately.” This helps your teen see that you notice they are struggling.
- Validate the emotion your teen is experiencing. Try not to make your teen see the situation as you see it. Validation is all about trying to place yourself in your teens shoes and helping them understand that you are trying to see the situation as they see it. In turn, they will feel understood by you. This will encourage your teen to talk to you. Here is an example: “I can see why you might feel sad. It hurts to feel like you are not doing enough.”
- Meet the emotional need for your teen. For example, if they are feeling sad, they might like a hug from you. If they are feeling angry, see if you can help them communicate what they need (e.g. need to feel heard, need help setting a boundary in their relationship). You can even ask what they need or would like from you if you are unsure what that might be (e.g. “I see you are sad. What can I do for you right now?”).
- Offer to help. After the first four steps have been completed, your teen will be more receptive to trying to address the problem of dating violence. In this fifth step, you are communicating, “I will help you sort this out. We can do this as a team.” If you are concerned about your teen experiencing dating violence, this is where you and your teen can come up with an action plan together. You both might consider it to be helpful to get some support from outside resources at this point.
Ensure Your Child has a Trusted Adult to Talk To
It is important for your teen to feel like they have someone they can talk to about what they are experiencing. There are times this will mean they need additional support outside of parents. The support persons for teens struggling with teen dating violence can include school counselors, spiritual leaders, and therapists.
It can be hard on you if your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about their relationship. You want to help as much as you can. But, connecting your teen with a support person is a wonderful way to show them that you care and want them to be healthy and safe.
There are local and national resources available to parents and their teens. These include:
- Waypoint Domestic Violence Services
319-365-1458 or 24/7 Crisis Line: 319-363-2093
- Friends of the Family
24/7 Crisis Line: 1-800-410-SAFE
- Riverview Center
24/7 Crisis Line: 1-888-557-0310 (for individuals who experienced any sexual violence)
- Domestic Violence Intervention Program
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
Teens can also visit LoveIsRespect.org to learn more about healthy relationships.
Parents and teens can both feel afraid and unsure when there is dating violence within the teen’s relationship. Just remember that you are not alone in this, and there are supports out there to help and support the teen and the family as a whole.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 27th). Preventing teen dating violence.
Giordano, P. C., Soto, D. A., Manning, W. D., & Longmore, M. A. (2010). The characteristics of romantic relationships associated with teen dating violence. Social Science Research, 39(6), 863-874.
Mental Health Foundations. (n.d.). Steps of emotional coaching. Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.