February is not just when we celebrate Valentine’s Day, it’s also National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month.
I have been receiving lots of questions about what parents can do to reduce the risk that their teen will engage in an unhealthy relationship. Here are some heartfelt tips on how to help your teen.
What Does Teen Dating Violence Encompass?
Teen dating violence is not just about physical violence. It can also involve being yelled at, put down, threatened, or being over-controlled or bullied by a partner.
It is also important to know that teen dating violence occurs to teens from all cultures and income levels and is not limited to families with a history of violence. It is not just about girls – boys can be victims as well. It can occur in any type of relationship and at any time in the relationship.
Sadly, many teens do not talk about the violence they are experiencing in a relationship because they are embarrassed, feel it is their fault, or don’t even realize it is abuse. They worry they will be forced to break up, of losing friends, and/or will be left alone without friends.
Signs of Being Victimized
Some ways you can tell if your teen is being victimized include, but are not limited to:
•Their grades start to go down
•They appear more anxious or depressed
•Avoidance of eye contact
•Some may have bruises or scratches that are not easily explained
•They are having trouble eating or sleeping
•They may turn to tobacco, alcohol, and other risk-taking drugs
How to Help
•Start early by teaching children about respect – both for themselves and others. Teach this before your child is even interested in a romantic relationship with someone.
•Allow your child to talk about what’s going on without interrupting, except to say you are there to help and not to judge.
•Focus on your child’s safety and self-esteem.
•It is important to reinforce that you care about what happens to your teen, that you love them and want to help, and that the abuse is not their fault, no matter how guilty they are being made to feel.
•If your teen doesn’t want to talk with you, suggest another trusted adult they might also want to talk with. A school counselor, teacher, their health care provider or even the police can be helpful.
What About Breaking Up?
If your teen does want to breakup, develop a safety plan with them ahead of time (such as always traveling with a friend or even changing course schedules).
Be supportive of that decision, stressing how important it is for that breakup to be definite and final.
Hopefully, tips like these will be easy ones to relate to when it comes to helping your teen deal with a potentially abusive relationship.
Lewis First, MD, is Chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.