Healthy relationships are essential for overall well-being, especially for young people. Occasional arguments are expected, but never should there be any physical, emotional, or psychological harm done to anyone in the relationship.
This can be particularly tricky for teenagers, who are still at a time in their lives in which they are coming into their own and figuring things out. Think about it: As a teenager (and even as a young adult), you were still developing, physically and mentally, even if you believed that you were “grown enough” to do and make certain decisions. Some of the decisions you made probably weren’t the wisest (I can definitely think of a few occasions in which I didn’t make the best decisions), but there were also decisions you made that ended up being the best for you at that time as well.
More often than not, when you look back, many of the decisions you made were influenced by many factors, including your peers, the media, entertainment, and your home environment. When we constantly see something or are told something, regardless of it being “good” or “bad”, we come to find that our lives and decision making begin to become shaped by it.
February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, a national campaign to raise awareness about the impact of violence in teen and young adult dating relationships, and to share ways to help teens and young adults develop healthier dating relationships. While young men are often victims of teen and young adult dating violence, young women are more likely to be victims.
How can adults help teens and young adults in unhealthy dating relationships? Here are five recommendations:
Recognize the warning signs: Some signs of an unhealthy dating relationship include unexplained bruising on the body that becomes more frequent, decline in academic performance, loss of interest in social activities, being isolated from close friends and family members, and gradual behavioral changes that are inconsistent with how your teen normally behaves. Also, watch for teens who are insistent on keeping tabs on what their partner is doing, jealous behavior, verbal insults and psychological abuse, stalking (and that includes on social media), and who become easily angered.
Challenge the media and speak with your money: We live in a society that obsessed with violence in movies, TV, film, and in music, and it can often have a big impact on how we view ourselves and each other. Take proactive steps to show the media and entertainment industries how it can impact teen behavior. Choose to no longer spend money on films and TV shows that portray women and girls as being tolerant of unhealthy dating relationships. Don’t spend money to support artists or entertainers who often use violent and demeaning lyrics (especially towards women and girls). Write an opinion editorial to your local newspaper or a letter to your local policy maker to advocate for more community resources to help teens develop healthier relationships.
Be an askable adult: Advocates for Youth have a great resource called Are You An Askable Parent?, and while it’s primary focus is on helping adults and caregivers become more comfortable with discussing sexuality with teens and younger children, I find that it can also be used as a great reference in how to talk with teens and young adults in ways that are affirming, empowering, and encouraging, which is very much needed when trying to assess if your teen is in an unhealthy relationship. Being askable allows for you to be more open and for your teen to be able to trust you.
Don’t focus solely on heterosexual teen relationships: Dating violence is not just something that happens between heterosexual teen couples. LGTBQ youth are particularly vulnerable to dating violence. Threats of “outing” the teen, making the teen feel ashamed of her sexual orientation, and the myth that dating violence only happens in heterosexual relationships can often make adults not recognized any of the above listed warning signs of dating violence.
Model healthier behavior: Adults should model what a healthy relationship looks like and how people are to be treated, in which they are affirmed, valued, and respected. It would be very hard to tell teens to expect more when we ourselves are not getting the respect and value we deserve in our own relationships. Observe the direct and indirect ways you interact with your partner. Seek help if you are not in a healthy relationship and take the necessary steps needed to make sure that you’re safe. Also, adults should give the same respect to teens and young adults. When teens and young adults are being treated with respect and can see positive and healthy relationships, they will be more willing to expect to be treated in the same manner in their dating relationships.
Here are some valuable resources:
Dating Violence Among Adolescents (from Advocates for Youth)
Dating Matters: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships (developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)