We know healthy relationships have mutual respect, good communication, safe boundaries and shared consent. Achieving all of these characteristics at the same time can be difficult in adult relationships – for teens with less experience dating, it can be even harder.
How can parents make sure their teens’ dating relationships are safe and healthy, without banishing them from dating until they’re 30? Talk with your teen about the following before they start dating, while they are dating and if their friends are dating. Teens cannot know what a healthy relationship is if we don’t teach them. Be curious, find out what they think and know about relationships. Tell them what you think and know about relationships. Talk with your teen often.
Identifying Healthy and Abusive Behavior
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
- Mutual respect means treating a partner equally and valuing their time and interests as much as your teen would want their time valued. When interests differ, time should be spent doing different activities that each partner enjoys. Consider, that payments for dates can be split or each can take turns paying. Most importantly, spending time together should be fun and positive!
- Good communication happens when teens are open with their feelings, are a good listener and can disagree. Both partners should listen to each other without interruption and use respectful language that does not put down, belittle shame or insult the other person. It’s important for teens to share their feelings and be open to hearing their partner’s feelings, especially when they disagree.
- Safe boundaries, when clearly set, are the best way to keep a relationship healthy. Having healthy boundaries means: your teen having time away from their partner to be alone or with friends and family, participating in activities they enjoy and not having to share passwords to social media accounts, email or phones. If your teen begins to pull back from their usual activities – allow their partner into their private space (physically, digitally or otherwise) – out of fear their partner may get angry if they don’t – your teen’s relationship boundaries are not healthy.
- Shared consent is essential to mutual respect, healthy communication and boundaries. In order for your teen to be 100% respectful of their partner’s wishes and feelings, it is important to communicate constantly when navigating different areas of the relationship. A dating partner should not pressure or force your teen into doing anything they are not comfortable with. Period.
Talking Points & Tips
Sometimes, the best way to start a conversation with your teen about dating is to discuss someone else’s relationship – either a friend’s or even a celebrity’s. Remember to ask open-ended questions, not one that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Examples of good, open-ended questions include:
- How would you want a boyfriend/girlfriend to treat you?
- How do you think you should treat a boyfriend/girlfriend?
- Are any of your friends dating? What do you like about their relationship? What don’t you like?
- What do you think healthy arguments look like?
- Do you know what a boundary is? What does a boundary look like in a relationship?
- What should mutual respect look like in a relationship?
Additional Resources on Healthy Teen Relationships
What is Dating Violence?
Although this list is not comprehensive of all possible forms of dating violence, below are some warning signs of teen dating violence to be aware of. An abusive dating partner may:
- Constantly text message, call or contact your teen, and become angry if your teen doesn’t respond.
- Verbally put down your teen (calling them ugly, a slut, thot, dumb, crazy, etc.).
- Make your teen feel guilty – using phrases like “If you really loved me…” or, “If you break up with me, I’m going to hurt/kill myself.”
- Physically harm your teen in any way (pushing, kicking, biting, pinching, slapping, etc.).
- Force or pressure your teen into sexual acts, or to look at or send sexual photos
- Force or pressure your teen to use drugs or alcohol.
- Have an explosive temper – going from “zero to one hundred” over minor things.
- Display extreme jealousy – can include attempting to control who your teen talks to and hangs out with, or what they are “allowed” to wear.
- Tell or threaten to reveal a partner’s sexual orientation if the person has not yet shared with their friends or family that they are LGBTQ.
- Isolate your teen from family or friends. This one is important. If you notice your teen is pulling away from activities, family time or friend groups, this could be a warning sign of dating violence. Abusive persons will isolate their partners so when the violence becomes extreme, the partner feels as though they have no one to turn to.
How can you as a parent be aware of your teen’s relationships and help keep them safe?
- Start talking with your teens regularly. Don’t wait for a reason or an incident to have conversations. Building a relationship with your teen over topics that feel easier to discuss can help your teen feel more comfortable talking with you about difficult topics.
- Ask about their friends’ relationships. Sometimes it is easier to get a handle on what teens are thinking or how they feel by asking them about other people’s lives.
- Share with your teen how they deserve to be treated in relationships. It is important for teens to know what a dating relationship should and should not look like.
Talking Points & Tips
Dating violence can be a difficult topic to discuss, but it is important you discuss dating violence even if your teens are not yet dating. Educating them up front can reduce the risk they will be in an abusive relationship.
Share with your teens the warning signs from the article, you can also ask some of the questions below:
- What do you think dating violence is?
- What are some different ways someone can be abusive towards a partner? (here, make sure you share the warning signs, and anything you didn’t hear in their answer)
- Do you wonder if any of your friends are in abusive relationships? What about celebrities or musicians that you follow?
- How do you deserve to be treated in a relationship
Suggest to your teen that, while jealousy may be flattering in the beginning of a relationship, it can become a dangerous and controlling characteristic later on.
Additional Resources on Dating Violence
What if I Think My Teen is a Victim?
If you suspect abuse in your teen’s relationship, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Please know that you and your teen are not alone in navigating this situation.
Important Things to Remember If You Think Your Teen May Be In An Abusive Relationship
- Don’t blame them. It’s easy to wonder how they got into this situation or why they won’t break up, but blaming or making accusations will only make them defensive. And if they feel defensive, they are less likely to talk to you.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Teens may not believe they are in an abusive relationship. Continue to share your concerns and have open discussions with your teen.
- Understand they will defend their abuser. Because of the manipulation that occurs in abusive relationships, your teen likely still feels very real emotions towards their partner. Listen to what they’re saying, and try and point out specific instances of abuse.
- This relationship is very real to them. As parents, we always want our teens to understand that they are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. While this is true, teens live in the moment, and this advice can make them feel as though you don’t understand what they’re going through.
- You’re still the parent. Unlike adult abusive relationships, you are able to set boundaries on behalf of your teen. If you are going to do this, for example not allow them to hang out with their partner outside of school, be honest and upfront with your teen. Tell them ahead of time what you are going to do, and explain why.
- Be careful about approaching the other teen or the other teen’s parents. If you are going to do this, discuss it with your teen first. Listen to what they have to say and consider their concerns carefully before you make your decision. Often addressing the abuser, though they may appear apologetic, can make them angry – which they may take out on your teen.
Remember not to make accusations, and come from a place of concern:
- I’m concerned your boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t treating you as well as you deserve.
- I’m worried about you. Can we talk?
- The other day, I saw/heard [name of their partner] [share the behavior you are concerned about]. That isn’t healthy in a relationship. What do you think?
What if I Think My Teen is Abusive?
It can be difficult to imagine your teen displaying abusive behaviors in their dating relationships. It is important not to ignore these behaviors. Some early signs of unhealthy behaviors may include:
- Being upset about their partner spending time away from them
- Asking their partner to change how they dress
- Showing jealousy towards their partner
- Calling their partner names or putting their partner down
- Going through their partner’s phone, with or without permission
If you notice these behaviors in your teen, use the opportunity to have an honest discussion with them. Share with your teen the characteristics of a healthy relationship, and point out the behaviors that concern you. Ask your teen what is making them jealous or upset, and share healthy ways to deal with those emotions.
If you feel your teen needs more help than you can provide, try to identify a local counselor or program specific to working with teens who display unhealthy behaviors.
Talking Points & Tips
Sometimes teens can display negative behaviors in relationships without understanding that their behaviors are controlling, or abusive. If you suspect your teen is mistreating their partner, whether intentionally or not, you can sit them down and share your concerns.
- I notice when [name of their partner] is around, you [ share the behavior you are concerned about]. That isn’t healthy in a relationship, what do you think?
- What makes you feel you need to [share behavior you are concerned about] with [name of their partner]?
- What does a healthy relationship look like for you?