Few words spark more concern for a parent. The realities of dating make teenagers uncomfortable as well. Parents worry about an increase in risky behavior and the drama that can come with dating. Teens face all the social ramifications. Who-likes-whom scenarios and their implications raise prickly self-esteem and judgment issues, which are especially tricky to navigate in middle school and high school.
The reality is, teens are dating. Sixty-one percent of teens, ages 13-18, say they have been in a relationship, dated someone, or “hooked up.” (IDVSA.org, n.d.) Sadly, violence in teen dating is also a reality. The CDC reports that 1 in 10 high school students experienced physical violence from a dating partner in the past year.
Watching your adolescent dip their toes in the next adult skillset brings on a variety of emotions. For teens, it can feel like diving straight into the deep end of the pool. Dealing with intense romantic emotions on top of anxieties about schoolwork, money, activities, jobs or ongoing education is lot to handle at any age. Adolescence is a time of testing the fuzzy boundary between expressing one’s individuality and fitting in, and dating adds another layer of complication to that.
Dating is also an opportunity for teens to learn important skills such as cooperation, appropriate behavior, compromise, sensitivity and the ability to understand others’ feelings. (Pish, 2013) Teens who learn to develop healthy relationships are more likely to have healthy relationships throughout their lives. (IDVSA.org, n.d.) There are ways to increase the chances that your teen’s relationships are healthy and positive experiences.
Despite the popular perception that peers and media are the biggest influencers for teens, parents play an important role in guiding their children’s behavior and choices. For better or worse, kids watch adults. How parents (or other significant adults) behave in and talk about relationships has a lot to do with how teens view their own relationships. As a parent, modeling healthy, positive relationships with people living in your home, friends, coworkers, and neighbors (not to mention any interactions you may have with your child’s friends) is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate what healthy relationships look like.
Open and ongoing communication is another key, and there are some things you can do to facilitate that. Mainly, be as available as possible (even if it’s by means of a phone while you are at work) and listen.
Talking with your teen about dating relationships should be ongoing, rather than a single conversation. Pay attention to signs that your teen wants to talk, such as hanging around without actually saying anything. Try to create opportunities that allow for natural conversation such as watching TV or riding in the car. Look for opportunities to engage in discussions about healthy relationships. (IDVSA.org, n.d.) For example, how people treat each other in song lyrics or television shows can be good conversation starters.
Realize that when your teen wants to engage, it may not be a convenient time for you. If, however, you put them off, that opportunity may be gone; when you are ready to talk, your teen may not be. “Parents need to understand that the teenager’s readiness to talk in a seriously self-disclosing way depends on happenstance, emotion, and mood coming into some mysterious internal alignment that sets the stage for momentary openness to occur — all factors that they don’t usually control,” writes Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D. (Pickhardt, 2011)
During these conversations, it is important to sharpen your active listening skills. Don’t rush to fill silences with questions, even in a phone conversation. Most teens will talk given the opportunity. (IDVSA.org, n.d.) Focus your full attention on your child when they are talking. “Listening affirms that the speaker has something worthwhile to say. Not listening denies or dismisses that value,” adds Pickhardt.
Having an awareness and understanding of emotions is a critical piece of developing healthy relationships. (IDVSA.org, n.d.) Ask open-ended questions that allow your teen to explore and express her emotions. “How do you feel when that happens?” rather than “Does that make you feel bad?” Don’t rush in with opinions or solutions. Allow your teen to formulate and express their own ideas.
Answer questions honestly. While you don’t have to share everything about your own experience, giving real examples of mistakes you’ve made, for instance, is a great way to further the conversation.
If after listening for a while, you really are no longer emotionally available, it is okay to specify another time to continue the conversation. Do let your teen know that you sincerely want to hear what else they have to say. (Pickhardt, 2011)
Lastly, be respectful of your teen’s thoughts, opinions and ideas, even if you disagree with what they are saying. Rather than making judgmental comments, offer realistic strategies for dealing with problems. (IDVSA.org, n.d.)
7 Signs of a healthy relationship
- They show each other respect: The cornerstone of a healthy relationship is mutual respect. Decisions are made taking into account both partner’s opinions and ideas. Neither partner tries to control the other.
- They are honest with one another: Trust is a crucial element of a healthy relationship. Honesty builds trust.
- Your teen feels safe: Their relationship is free of emotional or physical abuse, as well as any pressure to behave a certain way or accept unwanted physical contact.
- They share common interests: They enjoy doing things together and feel happy in each other’s company. Your teen does not feel forced to do something, or seem resentful about the plans they make together.
- Your teen does not turn into someone else when they are together: We all put on different ‘masks’ depending on who we are with, but for teens building an identity, it can be very difficult to find that healthy medium between accommodating the people around them and remaining true to their own thoughts and feelings. Your teen will probably behave differently around their partner than they do around you, but their behavior should not be unrecognizable, nor should they be professing opinions that are polar opposites of what they normally hold.
- They resolve disagreements amicably: Like any couple, they will disagree. When they do, they each have an opportunity to talk until both are happy and able to move on. Arguments are certainly normal, and intensive emotions come with the territory. But how that gets resolved is important.
- The relationship is not your teen’s entire life: They keep up with schoolwork and other friends, and participate in activities that don’t involve their partner. They don’t focus exclusively on that one relationship 24/7. A new relationship will often occupy a huge portion of your teens attention. That is not necessarily a major cause for concern. But no one relationship should consume every aspect of their lives.
(Healthy Children.org, 2015/IDVSA.org, n.d./Pish, 2013)
Teens: Set healthy boundaries…
Being in a relationship does not mean giving up individuality and it doesn’t mean sharing absolutely everything. Regardless of age, we all place a very high value on privacy, and we should have time and space away from any relationship. Healthy boundaries include that time apart, both in person, and by way of texts and phone calls. The website loveisrespect.org advises that mutually agreed upon boundaries for emotional, physical and digital connections can ensure that partners feel safe in the relationship and that needs are being met. The site offers these considerations for teens:
If your partner says, “I love you,” but you don’t feel that way yet, let him or her know how it made you feel to hear that, and what your own goals are for the relationship. It’s not necessary to say it back if you aren’t ready.
Don’t rush into a physical relationship. In healthy relationships, partners communicate about what they are ready for. There is no rulebook that says how far you have to go by a certain age, or at any given time in a relationship. Go at your own pace.
Together, you should agree on when it is okay to text and call, what expectations there are on returning messages, how you behave and share information about your relationship through texting, email and social media, such as comments, tags, posts tweets and photos. (Note that sexting – sharing explicit photos – can be a crime.)
Teens: Be aware of unhealthy relationship warning signs…
Feelings of stress or sadness are going to happen. But sometimes they are more than that. Think about these signs (and be honest with yourself), as they can be indications that a relationship is unhealthy, or even potentially dangerous.
Do you go along with things that make you uncomfortable or don’t feel right?
Do you feel bad when you are together?
Does your partner resent when you succeed in school, or spend time with your friends?
Does your partner always need to know where you are, whom you’re with and what you’re doing?
Do you feel your partner is possessive or smothering?
Does your partner blame you for their problems?
Is your partner overly jealous?
Does your partner try to change you or your behavior?
Violence or abuse should never happen in a relationship. There is no justification for physical abuse (hitting, shoving, kicking someone or breaking, throwing or hitting objects) or verbal abuse (screaming, swearing, bullying, name calling in anger, or making threats). (Healthychildren.org)
If you see these things in your relationship, they need to be addressed. Often an honest conversation is the single biggest step in addressing these issues and strengthening a relationship. Relationships bring stress and they can and will include negative emotions. But there’s no reason at all to remain in a dating relationship that’s making you feel bad about yourself or taking you away from other people you care about and who care about you.
Parents: Do’s and Don’ts of Addressing an Abusive Relationship
If you know or suspect that your child is a victim of physical or emotional abuse, here are a few ways to help.
DO stay calm. Give them a chance to talk. Listen without judging them.
- Believe them!
- Use clear language to describe what you see is happening. Acknowledge that this is very difficult and scary situation. Express your concern for your teen’s safety and well-being. Be supportive. Let them know you are there for them.
- Ask what they would like to have happen…how you can help them be safe.
- Keep the lines of communication open!
- Educate yourself—access online resources, read. Contact a domestic violence hotline or counselor.
DON’T try to rescue them. While this is a natural impulse, it will likely shut them down.
- Blame them for the abuse or make them feel judged.
- Punish them because of an abusive partner.
- Criticize their partner—you don’t want to put them in the position of defending the person responsible for the abuse.
(Caring Unlimited, 2016)
Let your teen know that jealousy, control and disrespect are not signs of love or caring. And, there is never an excuse or justification for violence. Healthy relationships take effort, and aren’t always perfect, but they should leave your teen feeling good about themselves and their partner.
Dating is a turbulent thing for anyone. The intensity of the relationship, the insecurities that can come to light, and the difficulty in addressing conflicting aspects of our personalities are all serious challenges regardless of age. But really learning about yourself and how to build a healthy relationship is doubly important as a teenager. That means that parents have a responsibility to be there for their teens and to lead by example as much as possible. It also places a very important responsibility on teens; that of developing the skills and social awareness they will use for the rest of their lives.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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Idaho Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (n.d.) Navigating Teen Dating Relationships. IDVSA.org. Retrieved on February 18, 2016 from: https://idvsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/High-School-Parent-Handbook.pdf
Centers for Disease Control (n.d.) Dating MattersTM: Strategies for Promoting Healthy Teen Relationships. CDC.gov. Retrieved on February 18, 2016 from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/datingmatters_flyer-a.pdf
Pish, S. (2013) Signs of a healthy teenage dating relationship. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved on February 18, 2016 from: https://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/signs_of_a_healthy_teenage_dating_relationship
Pickhardt, C. (2011) Listening to Your Adolescent. Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 7, 2016 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201110/listening-your-adolescent
Loveisrespect.org (n.d.) Healthy Relationships – Setting Boundaries. Loveisrespect.org. Retrieved on February 19, 2016 from: https://www.loveisrespect.org/healthy-relationships/setting-boundaries/
Hogan, E. (2014). 4 Tips for Teens Who Are Dating. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2016, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/11/30/4-tips-for-dating-teens/
Caring Unlimited (2016) Dating Abuse: What Every Parent Should Know. Caring Unlimited – York County’s Domestic Violence Program. Retrieved on March 7, 2016 from: https://www.caring-unlimited.org/what-is-domestic-violence/for-family-and-friends/how-to-help/dating-abuse-what-every-parent-should-know