February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Every year, about 1.5 million high school students (one of every three students) across the U.S. experience physical abuse from their dating partner. Abuse can occur in physical verbal, emotional, sexual and digital forms. Both males and females are at risk to be victims of abuse or to engage in abusive behavior. Sadly, 81 percent of parents report they didn’t realize teen dating violence was a problem. This provides all the more reason to ensure we, as parents, foster parents and educators, talk to our kids about setting and respecting boundaries in relationships.
If you aren’t sure how to broach the conversation, start by downloading It’s Time to Start the Conversation, a guide developed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, loveisrespect.org and breakthecycle.org. Breakthecycle.org also offers free downloads, infographics, handouts and more here.
Start by defining a healthy relationship
While we may assume our kids know how to identify a healthy relationship, remind them that open and honest communication, mutual trust and respecting established boundaries are key. Once the balance starts to shift and one partner begins to assert dominance over the other, then unhealthy patterns emerge. These could include:
- Using texting or social media to monitor their partner’s whereabouts
- Name calling or insulting in public or private
- Threatening language or messages
- Isolating a partner from friends and family
- Sexual coercion or pushing a partner past what they are comfortable doing
- Stalking or harassing on social media
Teach teens to spot warning signs of unhealthy behavior
As a parent or foster parent, it’s important to know your kids’ friends. Take the time to give kids your undivided attention and encourage them to open up to you. Pay attention to what they have to say, and make sure your kids know that you are always there for them. Help them realize the importance of setting boundaries in their relationships, such as the amount of time spent with their partner, time spent alone, verbal exchanges and even social media interaction. Ask some tough questions to see how your kids would react.
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to hit them?
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to pressure them into sexual activity?
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to insult or call them rude or demeaning names in front of friends or other people?
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to demand the passwords to their social media accounts?
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to share their private texts or photos with other people?
- Is it OK for their boyfriend/girlfriend to take photos or videos, or ask them to look at photos and videos that make them uncomfortable?
Abuse comes in many forms
Remind your teen that abuse takes many forms. When a relationship becomes violent, harmful or controlling, it’s important to seek help.
- Physical contact: Dating relationships evolve over time, and begin innocently enough before progressing to more familiar, more intimate and more serious contact. This boundary was once well delineated and mutually understood but today is no longer so obvious. Keep in mind that sex is not currency and should not treated as such. This is an area in which parents should be prepared to have frank discussions with their teens that may be uncomfortable, but are necessary.
- Physical harm: There’s absolutely no place in a dating relationship for any behavior that’s intended, or has the potential, to cause bodily harm. This would include hitting, kicking, shoving, pushing, grabbing, punching, hair-pulling, arm-twisting, scratching, throwing objects, breaking items, brandishing a weapon, smacking, spanking and more. This boundary must be non-negotiable, as it can escalate and become criminal.
- Time spent together: This is an area where parents and teens are likely to disagree, with dating teens wanting to spend as much time as possible with their partner, and parents knowing from life experience that too much of a good thing isn’t normal or healthy. Couples who spend all their waking time with one another may create a situation where the exercise of power and control becomes monopolizing or intimidating. Boundaries in this area should align with mutually acceptable standards.
- Time spent alone: Healthy relationships benefit from social time (with friends and cohorts), shared time (with parents and family), alone together time (with each other), as well as time apart and time alone by oneself. Parents need to acknowledge that all five elements are important to a healthy relationship, and that teens are likely to err on the side of wanting to have too much time spent alone together with their partner. Parents should establish an agreed-upon distribution of their teen’s time, and monitor it vigilantly.
- Verbal exchanges: There’s never any reason that justifies yelling, screaming, bullying, name-calling, cursing, using vulgarity, forcing, pressuring or otherwise humiliating another person in a healthy dating relationship. All conversations should be conducted in a calm and civil manner, even when disagreements occur that might require compromise. This area should be non-negotiable, but sadly is too often minimized.
- Financial affairs: This area runs in a wide range that includes sharing passwords to having one partner always paying for the other. Neither extreme is optimal or acceptable, in part because it may set up an out-of-balance, “you owe me’” situation that is unhealthy.
- Digital interactions: Texting and sexting images/messages that were once considered unimaginable are now commonplace. The sharing of passwords for various devices, email and social media accounts needs to be off-limits. Private matters should remain private.
- Emotions: Parents should recognize that a teen’s emotions are inextricably woven into the fabric of their dating relationship, weighing heavily on their emerging sense of guilt, shame, fear and credibility. In this highly charged environment, emotions often take precedence over rational thinking.
- Social Norms: Actions that are acceptable in one culture might be unacceptable in another, depending on what the prevailing social environment says. Parents should help their teens understand how to ensure social norms are integrated into their dating relationship.
If you are a victim of abuse or know someone who is in an abusive situation, free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365.
- Chat at www.loveisrespect.org
- Text LOVEIS to 22522
- Call 1-866-331-9474
Helping parents provide guidance for determining boundaries for their teens engage in dating relationships is part of the advocacy efforts of organizations like SAFY, a provider of adoption and foster care services which helps 15,000 people each year. SAFY is committed to preserving families and securing futures. The approach we’re taking at SAFY is simple but essential, focus our energy on shedding light on situations like teen dating so that we can be a viable partner in a dynamic environment for a population that all too often is forgotten or under-represented.