Teen Dating Violence: Something to talk about

By Jeffrey Wheeler, M.D., Medical Director, MDwise

If you’re a parent, you know talking with your kids about things that matter is important. From bullying to diversity and from money management to “The Birds and The Bees,” the topics are critical for pre-teens and teenagers. These days, though, parents should include something else in that conversation: a discussion about what healthy dating relationships look like.

Prom season gives us a good opportunity to talk about why this matters. The obvious reason is that, sadly, teen dating violence is not uncommon. One in 10 dating teens will experience some kind of physical abuse in a relationship, and about 40% of college women report being the victim of violent or abusive behaviors. Clearly, we need to help young people understand how to protect themselves.

Let’s start by talking about what we mean by dating violence. Certainly we’re talking about physical abuse, but dating violence also can be verbal, psychological, sexual and emotional. With social media and technology playing bigger and bigger roles in our lives, digital abuse is common too. All of these can result in low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression and other mental health issues. Most concerning: About 50% of people in abusive relationships experience suicidal thoughts.

As a board-certified physician in both internal medicine and pediatrics, I can tell you this is real.

We also need to change our thinking about who is victimized by dating violence. While it is most often a case of a young woman being victimized by a young man, dating violence can happen to or be perpetrated by anyone, regardless of gender or gender identity. And dating violence doesn’t happen only in established, intimate relationships; it can be present from the very first date.

So, what should we teach our teens about dating violence? First of all, that no level of dating violence is acceptable. The first signs of abuse should be taken seriously, and nothing should be excused as “a one-time thing.”

Second, teens need to understand that dating violence take various forms. If they feel their partner isolates them from friends, governs social media use, restricts activities, dictates what clothes they wear or controls them in other ways, they’re being abused. If a partner destroys their belongings, belittles them or their family or displays extreme jealousy, that’s abusive.

Finally, they need to know that abusive behavior is not excused by conditions or substance use. In other words, saying things like “I only hit you because I was upset about my test,” or “I wouldn’t have treated you that way if I hadn’t been drinking” does not excuse abuse. 

As parents, we want our kids to learn to date, but we also want them to be safe. So talk to your kids and grandkids about healthy relationships before they start dating. Explain that a healthy relationship means they should feel safe speaking up when something bothers them … they should never fear a partner … they should be able to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected … and they should feel like they could leave the relationship without fear of retaliation.

Discussing teen dating violence might be uncomfortable, and your child’s reaction might well be, “It’ll never happen to me.” But the sad fact is that it does happen, and the way a child responds to it—just like the decisions he or she makes about sex—could shape the rest of their life. 

So, talk to your children so they can be prepared to have healthy, loving dating relationships. And then let them know that the lines of communication will always be open, so the child can come to you with worries, problems and concerns. Because that’s how things work in a healthy relationship.

If you or your child are concerned about an abusive or potentially abusive relationship, reach out to the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline now, at 866-331-9474.