He was such a nice guy. Cute, funny, talented, and oh-so-charming. I was such a naive little thing. Gullible, trusting, insecure. He was my first boyfriend and I was a starry-eyed high schooler. I wrote his last name in place of my own, dreamed up names for our kids, and had our entire lives together planned out. And then the flip switched. Our conversations became less about how beautiful I was and more about how inferior I was. He pushed my physical boundaries and pressured, threatened, and guilted me if I tried to stand my ground. I lost weight, I couldn’t sleep, and I sank into a dark mental state. I didn’t recognize it at the time as abuse, I didn’t have bruises, and it certainly didn’t feel like the violence I saw on TV. It wasn’t until after we had broken up and I was in a healthy relationship that the trauma responses began popping up and I saw that first relationship for what it truly was: abusive.
When our kids reach the age of dating, there are a million things on our minds. Will they make good choices? What if their heart gets broken? What boundaries do we need to have set up? Unless we have a history of it ourselves, we don’t often think about abuse or violence in our kids’ dating relationships.
Sadly, statistics are showing this is an issue we should be looking for on high alert. About 1.5 million high schoolers in the U.S. shared that they have been intentionally harmed physically by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the last year alone. 1 in 4 of our high school girls has been abused either physically or sexually. Sadly, teens who have suffered from abusive romantic relationships are more prone to eating disorders, alcoholism, thoughts of suicide, promiscuity, violent behavior, and long-term struggles in future relationships.
Dating is already a hard enough topic to tackle with our teens, how can we take on this even more difficult dimension of it? Here are a few tips to protect your child from entering or continuing in an abusive relationship.
Help Them Recognize Abuse
Teens are just learning the ropes of dating. They often don’t know what a relationship is supposed to look like. Couple this with their need for belonging, the social pressures to date, and the status that comes from having a boyfriend or girlfriend and you have a recipe for a teen to get stuck in a dangerous relationship. We need to be open with our kids about the reality of dating abuse, both by sharing what a healthy relationship looks like and what an unhealthy one looks like. Here are some basic warning signs of an abusive relationship to share with your teen:
- If your significant other is extremely jealous or possessive of you.
- If they check your phone without your permission.
- Trying to limit your ability to use a phone or a computer.
- Constantly accusing you of being unfaithful.
- If they are controlling of who you talk to, what you do, or where you go. Control is a huge aspect of abuse.
- If they belittle, insult, demean, harass, bully, name-call, make fun of, or intentionally embarrass you, they are abusive. Even if they try and laugh it off you tell you you’re being oversensitive. Someone who really loves you never purposely puts you down in this way. Verbal and emotional abuse is still a very real form of abuse.
- Explosive anger, extreme mood swings, and a quick temper are huge red flags.
- Any kind of threat, in person, online, or through a text is abuse.
- Constantly blaming you for things going wrong and never accepting any fault of their own.
- Repeatedly apologizing and promising change but never really changing.
- ANY and ALL actions that knowingly cause you physical pain is abuse.
- Sharing private, embarrassing, or personal photos of you.
Understand the reality of abuse (and don’t minimize it!)
“Abuse” feels like a very dramatic word. There is a certain stigma surrounding it and most people caught in an abusive situation don’t want to use it. They tend to excuse abusive behaviors with comments like, “It’s not that bad.”, “They’re just going through a lot right now.”, “I shouldn’t have upset them.”, “They didn’t mean it that way!”, or “But they said sorry.” We have to help our kids break through the stigma surrounding abuse and start calling it what it is. Remember also that your sons can be victims of dating abuse too. We often think of abuse only occurring to girls, causing boys who are suffering abuse to be overlooked. When we discuss abuse with our teens, we need them to know it is a big deal, and it is absolutely a deal-breaker in a relationship.
I don’t mean you insist on third-wheeling your teen’s every moment with their date. However, as the parent it is so important you do have a level of involvement.
- Get to know your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend by spending time with them, and have open conversations with your teen about the state of their relationship and how their partner makes them feel.
- Trust your gut if something feels off or your teen is becoming increasingly moody, withdrawn, or secretive.
- Encourage your teen to go on group dates and discuss what age-appropriate dates you are comfortable with (and explaining why you are making these decisions can go a long way!)
- Determine your family’s rules and boundaries and make them clear to your kids. The earlier you do this, the better!
- Teach your kid never to settle and to have high standards in their relationship. Often, teens just want to be in a relationship and will accept anyone who asks. Help them know they are worthy of being respected and treated right.
- Model healthy relationships of your own.
The teen dating years can certainly be a brutal season for a mama’s heart. There are so many overwhelming aspects to watching our kids test their wings and take practice flights away from our safe nests. Dating abuse is a horror we never want our children to face. By being aware and training our kids, we can take steps to create a solid foundation for a safe and healthy dating experience both now and into adulthood.