February is not just when we celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s also National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month, and I have received lots of questions about what parents can do to reduce the risk their teen will engage in an unhealthy relationship.
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 not a rarity: one in 10 teens say they experience physical violence in a dating relationship. If you include threats and emotional abuse, those numbers are even higher.
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 as well can be victims. And violence can occur in any type of relationship and at any time in the relationship.
Sadly many teens do not talk about the violence they experience 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 or will lose friends or will be left alone without friends. Many feel things can only get better if they change their partner’s behavior, which is usually not going to happen.
How can you tell your teen is being victimized? You may see their grades start to go down. They may appear more anxious or depressed or avoid eye contact. They may have bruises or scratches that are not easily explained, have trouble eating or sleeping, or turn to tobacco, alcohol and other risk-taking drugs.
So what can parents do?
They can start early by teaching children about respect — both for self and others — even before your child is 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.