Young people can benefit from conversations about dating violence

Parents and other adults in the lives of kids should invite ongoing dialogue about healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships.

Whether they call it “dating,” “hanging out,” “hooking up,” “seeing each other” or some other term, by the time they’re in middle school, many young people are involved in romantic relationships. Building these kinds of emerging relationships is an important aspect of development as kids move into adolescence and young adulthood. While most of these relationships are caring and positive, some young people experience abusive and unhealthy relationships that can have serious outcomes for their health and wellbeing.

It’s important that the adults in kids’ lives – their parents, caregivers, youth leaders, teachers and others – have a good understanding of the presence of gender-related violence happening to some young people, including dating violence. It’s also helpful for adults to create opportunities to have ongoing conversations with kids about qualities of healthy, loving and respectful romantic relationships, along with qualities of relationships that are hurtful, abusive and unhealthy.

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health explored the proportion of parents who talked with their adolescent children (ages 11 to 18) about dating violence issues. The authors found that 55 percent of parents had discussed dating violence with their children, with mothers being more likely to have these conversations. The study also found that this topic was substantially less likely to be discussed than issues like school work, alcohol and drugs, family finances, sex and dating relationships in general.

Parents who reported not talking about dating abuse with their children indicated reasons such as their children were not dating or were too young, that kids would learn about the issue through experience, and that they (the parents) didn’t know how to talk about the issue or that it was too embarrassing an issue to discuss. The authors also pointed out that, although 55 percent of parents had indeed talked about this issue with the kids, this is not ideal considering the numbers of young people experiencing dating abuse. According to another study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, as many as 44 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys have reported experiencing physical or sexual partner abuse by young adulthood.

Caring and concerned adults can begin these conversations with young people by keeping the following in mind:

  • Have developmentally appropriate conversations with kids early on – before they’re involved with romantic relationships. Ask younger kids for their thoughts about relationships with their friends and families and the qualities that make these relationships positive and healthy, versus hurtful and negative.
  • As you move toward talking more specifically about healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships, be sure you’ve done your homework about these issues so that you can be well-prepared when starting these conversations. Resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can provide this information, along with links to a wide variety of other sources. As you explore the types of dating abuse that some young people may be experiencing, don’t discount the potential damage of verbally abusive relationships, and keep in mind that verbal abuse involves more than just name-calling.
  • Part of this homework also involves knowing how to help young people think about a safety plan if they’re ever involved in an abusive situation. Stress your willingness to be a trusting and nonjudgmental resource for them – and provide them with information about other sources as well. The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence provides links to local Michigan resources, and the National Dating Abuse Helpline provides assistance 24/7 via phone, text or online chat.
  • Gender can be a significant factor related to teen dating violence, since many studies show that girls are victimized at higher rates than boys – particularly related to very serious forms of abuse. Boys and girls can benefit when both men and women are willing to talk with them about these issues and to serve as models of someone who exhibits positive and healthy qualities within their own romantic relationships.
  • As you talk with your own children about these issues, emphasize your concern for their safety and wellbeing, as well as that of their friends and peers. Make it clear that you can be a helpful, trusting and nonjudgmental resource for other young people who may need someone to turn to.

Keep in mind that 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, a new MSU Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, helps youth and adults learn together about issues of bullying – including differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. You can learn more about Be SAFE through the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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