You’re at a family gathering. Your kids trade TikToks with cousins while you pass out cookies and cider.
Your 14-year-old, John, walks into the kitchen when Uncle Pete yells, “I heard someone has a girlfriend!”
“Oohs” and “aahs” fill the room. John, red faced, spins around to get the heck out.
Uncle Pete calls after him, “You make sure you’re treating that girl right!”
Maybe Uncle Pete is teasing, but what if you took the question seriously:
- Is John treating his girlfriend “right?”
- Is he being treated “right?”
- What does “right” look like? What about “wrong?”
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. So, let’s tackle some common questions.
What is teen dating violence?
It’s easy to go on the defense – John is your son, he would never hurt a fly. But teen dating violence isn’t only physical.
Dating abuse is a pattern of behaviors meant to gain power over a partner. Abuse can take many forms: physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and online. About 1 in 3 teens experiences some kind of dating abuse in the United States. In teen relationships, abusive control could include:
- Telling a partner not to spend time with friends or family
- Asking them to repeatedly skip activities to spend time together instead
- Needing to know where they are always
- Accusing them of cheating repeatedly
Aren’t They ‘Just Kids?’
Your kid is laying groundwork for their future. John may not be in this relationship forever. But, he will be in relationships forever. This is his first chance to learn what a healthy relationship is. One way to help is by respecting privacy. Ask: “Can I share that you have a girlfriend with the family? Is there anything you’d prefer me not to say?” This can eliminate surprise reveals for John and show the relationship should be taken seriously.
Talk the Talk
These conversations may be awkward, but talking about healthy relationships is necessary. Help your kids learn early about respect, boundaries, power dynamics, and consent.
Starting the conversation can be as simple as:
- “I know you and [partner] went to the party last night, how was it?”
- “How is it going with [ partner]? Do they seem happy when you are together? Are you?”
- “What do you like about being with them?”
For more helpful tips, check out this Parent Guide for teen dating violence.
If you don’t feel comfortable or able to talk to your teen, offer them resources. Send them this relationship quiz where they can privately get feedback. Or offer this live chat where they can reach support.
Walk the Walk
Young people learn by watching. You can model healthy behaviors with your own close relationships. It may be uncomfortable to have a conflict with someone in front of your teen but, if you do, it’s an opportunity to resolve it in front of them too. Your example will last.
When it comes to John (and your teen) remember:
- Their relationship deserves to be taken seriously.
- Help them stay present and curious: How do they feel about it? Have they talked to their partner about how the partner feels?
- Offer resources. Talk about relationships in casual conversation.
- Model respectful conflict resolution and open communication.
Teens need to learn what a healthy relationship feels like. Help your teen learn early.
About the Author: Alexandra Lenihan is the MSW intern at the Office of Domestic Violence Strategies for the City of Philadelphia.
If you think your teen is experiencing dating violence you can always contact either the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-866-723-3014 or the National Teen Dating Violence Hotline by calling 1-866-331-9474 or texting “LOVEIS” to 22522.
Join the Office of Domestic Violence Strategies for Teen Dating Violence: A Parents’ Workshop on Tough Conversations on Feb. 22 from noon to 1 p.m. on Zoom. Panelists will share information, demonstrate conversation starters for talking about healthy relationships, and answer audience questions.