Are the dating relationships of teens in your circles healthy or unhealthy?

How healthy are the romantic relationships of the teens in your life?

Think about the adolescents who are within the circle of those you love and care about – whether they’re your own children or the teens within your larger circle of family and friends. Now broaden that circle and think about their friends, as well as all the other young people their age within their schools, youth groups and online communities. Chances are that most of these young people are trying to figure out how to navigate romantic relationships – an important aspect of their development as they move toward adulthood. Unfortunately, there’s a significant possibility that many of these young people are involved with dating relationships that are abusive and unhealthy.

According to preliminary findings from the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence, the number of young people between ages 12-18 who are involved with adolescent dating abuse are disturbingly high. A 2013 study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago was designed to identify rates of adolescent relationship violence that take place in person or through electronic means, in public or in private, and between current or past dating partners. The findings indicated that nearly 20 percent of both boys and girls reported being victims of physical and sexual abuse within dating relationships – with physical abuse including actions like hitting, shoving, choking and biting, and sexual abuse including actions like unwelcome sexual touching, being sexually intimidated and being forced to do something sexual. In addition, more than 60 percent of boys and girls reported being both victims and perpetrators of psychological abuse, which includes things like put-downs and insults, threats and controlling actions (such as telling a partner what to wear or continuously monitoring his or her whereabouts).

Adolescents in the age range 15-18 reported higher rates of relationship abuse than youth ages 12-14. The survey results showed similar rates of girls and boys reporting victimization and victimization/perpetration. In a recent article about the study published by The Guardian, the study’s authors stressed that while girls ages 12-14 more often carry out serious threats of physical violence than boys the same ages, boys ages 15-18 more commonly carried out these actions than girls in the same age group. Results from the another national survey, the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey indicated that girls in grades nine through 12 report higher rates of physical and sexual dating violence victimization. Thirteen percent of girls reported being targeted by physical violence (compared with seven percent of boys), and 14 percent of girls reported being targeted by sexual violence (compared with six percent of boys).

Although these research findings can feel overwhelming, there are things that caring adults can do as you think about the wellbeing of the young people within your immediate and community circles. First and foremost, be willing to have ongoing conversations with kids (starting when they’re young) about the qualities of healthy, loving and respectful relationships compared with those that are abusive and unhealthy. Stress that – just as we hope that young people will act as supportive allies for those who are targets of hurtful bullying behaviors – there’s also a powerful role that young people can take on as peers of those involved with dating violence. In addition, use your own voice for advocating that schools and other youth settings incorporate programs such as Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries, which are designed to help young people explore issues related to preventing dating violence and building healthy relationships.

Stay tuned for additional information about the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence as more findings from the study are released over the coming months. Michigan State University Extension provides programs and opportunities for adults to help young people learn more about issues including dating violence, bullying and harassment. For example, the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative is designed to help young people and adults work together to prevent issues of bullying – including knowing differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. The initiative includes the comprehensive Be SAFE curriculum, which is designed for use in both school and out-of-school settings.

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