Six tips to encourage our teens to get involved in healthy, versus unhealthy, relationships
On the wall above my desk is a bulletin board. There’s a letter pinned to it, written in curvy, girlish handwriting. The letter is one of the thank-you notes I have received over the years I’ve worked at Teen Xpress. It was written years ago by Jen,* a beautiful, sweet 16-year-old girl in an abusive relationship.
She attended an anger management group I led. The group consisted of her and four other girls her age. Every week, we met and had discussions about anger, awareness of our actions when we became angry, and healthier activities and choices we could make when that happened.
The day we met for the third session of the group, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Jen made a comment about her boyfriend. His name came up again… and again. Pretty soon, none of us were thinking about anger management anymore. The other girls and I just sat and listened to Jen as she talked about her boyfriend. How he should be the one in this group. What he says when he gets mad. How he scares everyone when he starts yelling, even his own mom.
I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew where this was going. It wasn’t long before Jen started sharing some things that caused me to worry about her safety. After Jen recounted a story about when he got angry at her because of the skirt she was wearing and pushed her down on her bed, I knew that we weren’t just talking about someone with a bad temper. We were talking about an abusive relationship.
Unfortunately, teen relationship violence occurs frequently. According to , one in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. Jen’s account of her relationship with her boyfriend touched on many different aspects of abuse.
Jen described moments where her boyfriend tried to isolate her. He encouraged her to spend all of her time with him- a normal desire for couples, especially early in a relationship. However, at the same time, he discouraged her to spend time with friends, and even family. There were times where he tried to control her, telling her she could not go to certain places, asking for her passwords to her social media accounts, and telling her what he thought she should (and shouldn’t) wear. She shared instances of when he intimidated her, through looks, threats, words, and actions. Jen talked about times when he made her feel like she was crazy; he would blame her, saying that things were her fault- if she would stop making him angry, he wouldn’t act violent.
It wasn’t long before another member of the group asked the Big Question. “If he treats you like that, why do you stay?” This is a commonly asked question. Why would someone put themselves in a situation like this? Jen’s answers mirrored what I’ve heard people say over and over again. First came the minimizing: “Well, it’s not like he’s angry all the time.” Then the rationalizing: “I’m not saying it’s my fault, but I know that sometimes I provoke him. I mean, it’s not like I don’t know what he’s capable of.” Jen talked about how she felt that his intense jealousy showed that he really loved her. Despite the obvious flaws in the relationship, Jen seemed to have strong feelings for her boyfriend. She herself said that she was in love with him.
For anyone out there that knows a teen involved in an abusive relationship, you know how heart-wrenching it can be. To someone on the outside, the dynamics of the relationship can be confusing and infuriating. It can be terrifying. As a parent, our instincts are to get our child out of a dangerous situation immediately. However, as we all know, as soon as we forbid a typical, everyday adolescent from doing something, they almost always immediately seem to want to do it. And that’s not all: it’s not unusual for a teen to develop deep, intense feelings when it comes to relationships. They may truly feel that they are in love, that no one understands, and that going through the “bad stuff” is worth it.
It doesn’t help that abusive relationships are normalized in our society. TV shows and movies can feature abusive relationships, but tend to spin them in a romantic way. Even if you choose not to watch these shows, there’s a good chance that you will catch a commercial now and then with either a man or woman being physically aggressive with one another in one shot, then in a passionate embrace the next moment. If you’re seeing those commercials, there’s a good chance your kids could be seeing them, too. The more we see, the more normal it becomes.
We live in a world where one in five teens in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped or pushed by a partner (Teen Dating Abuse Survey, 2006).
How do we encourage our sons and daughters to get involved in healthy, versus unhealthy, relationships?Modeling- As parents, what sort of example are we setting? Every couple argues, but when we fight with our significant other or spouse, how do we act? Are we yelling, screaming, and slamming? Are we putting our hands on each other? According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners or children when they become adults. Our kids are watching us. They will learn from what they see us do.
Learn- Get familiar with relationship violence and domestic violence. That way, you will be informed and your kids can get accurate information from you. Know the basics. Relationship violence does not discriminate; it can happen in any home, any kind of relationship, and males, as well as females can be victims. Contact your local domestic violence shelter for information or hop on the internet- there are many educational sites to choose from.
Discuss- Share what you know with your kids. There are teachable moments occurring all the time. We just need to take notice of them and talk about them. The other day, my son was watching television. I walked through my living room and caught the end of a commercial for a teen drama. A boyfriend and girlfriend were arguing, as he yelled in her face, held her by her wrists, and she cried. Yes, a teen drama. I picked up our remote and hit the pause button. I sat down and asked my son about the commercial. We talked for a few minutes about what he saw and what he felt about it. I reinforced that that was not a safe way to communicate or argue with someone, especially when it’s someone you love. We talked about treating others with respect and kindness, communicating openly, and remembering to take time to cool off when angry.
Create- Your home is yours. Make it a place of love and respect. Kids will thrive in environments where they know they are loved and valued. Show love and respect to your children and your spouse or partner. A child that grows up in a house with kindness and respect being shown towards all family members is more likely to seek out partners that treat them this way and more likely to treat others this way.
Seek- Get help! If you are in an unsafe situation or you feel that your teenage son or daughter is in an abusive relationship, look for support and help. There are local as well as national programs and resources available. If there is an abusive person in your home, use caution when researching on the internet. They may be able to track what sites you have visited.
Support- If you find that your son or daughter is in an abusive relationship, handle the situation with care. Due to a mixture of cognitive development and culture, most teens are quick to do exactly what we, as parents, tell them not to do. Therefore, giving them an ultimatum or forbidding them to see their boyfriend or girlfriend usually does not help. Instead, try to convey to them your concerns about their safety. Let them know you are worried about their safety because you love them. Give them concrete examples of things that have happened that have caused you to worry. “I am worried about your safety because I saw him grab your arm while you two were arguing in the driveway. This scares me because I love you. Being aggressive is not a way to show someone you love and care about them.”
It is impossible to predict what a teen might say in response to this. They may make a comment about how no one understands, or that it wasn’t a big deal. For parents, this can be frustrating because it feels like we are not being listened to or that we are being told that our concerns don’t matter. However, do not give up, and do not allow an exchange like this to escalate into a power struggle. Stick to your viewpoint about safety, respect, and love and continue to reiterate that your son/ daughter deserves all three.
Share your concerns with others that are able to help and support you as you figure out what to do. A counselor or a local domestic violence organization will be able to help you figure out how to continue to support your child through this in an appropriate way. With a counselor or therapist, the situation will remain private, with the exception of safety concerns. If you choose to speak with a family member, close friend, or neighbor, while their advice is probably well-intended, they are most likely not trained in appropriate ways to help. They also may share this situation with others, which does not usually go over with the teen very well. There have been many times over the years where an angry adolescent has shared a story with me and ended it with, “My mom begged me to tell her what was going on, so I did, and now she has told my aunt, who told my grandma, my neighbor, and my coach. I’m so humiliated.”
Situations like this can be scary and even dangerous to try to handle on our own. If you, someone you know, or your son or daughter is in an unsafe relationship, reach out to those that know how to help. Jen, who so bravely decided to tell her story that day, did just that. She found support from the other group members, received education on healthy relationships, and information on how to end her relationship- as safely as possible. She learned about herself and what she did and did not deserve in a relationship. Jen did end up breaking up with her boyfriend, and for her, that opened the door to a happier, healthier life.
Let’s all be there for others in abusive relationships, without judgment, so that we can try to help them do the same.
*Names have been changed
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Orange County Domestic Violence Shelter
Seminole County Domestic Violence Shelter
Abusive Relationship Awareness websites for Teens
www.werbrave.com (Part of Safe House of Seminole)