9 Ways to Prevent Teen Dating Violence

Discover how to prevent teen dating violence in your teen's life

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Picture a teen couple in the hallway at school between classes. At first glance, they look pretty normal. In fact, they seem so close. But if you look a little closer you would see that something is terribly wrong.

She is wearing long sleeves on a humid day (to hide the bruises on her arms where he squeezed her when he was angry). She also has stopped curling her long blonde hair and now wears it in a simple ponytail.

(Her boyfriend tells her she looks better this way, but really he doesn't want her long, golden hair to attract attention at school.)

When her phone vibrates with an incoming text message, he grabs it from her and reads it. (He has all her passwords and monitors all her communication, even the messages from her parents.) The message on her phone is from a friend. She wants to come over after school. He tells her to say she can't hang out tonight. (She has to spend all her time with him now.)

Eventually, her friends give up and stop calling and texting. In return, she feels alone, isolated and confined. Still, she doesn't know what to do and no one is around to help her. She is trapped in an abusive and controlling relationship with no ideas about how to get out.

There are countless stories just like this one happening in the hallways of our nation's schools every day. In fact, young women between the ages of 16 and 24 are at the greatest risk for intimate partner violence.

And yet these subtle stories of abuse are often going unnoticed. Many young people just do not know how to prevent teen dating violence, or how to recognize abuse. And even if they do, they have no idea what to do to end it.

How Big Is the Issue?

According to one study, nearly one in three teenagers who have been in a relationship report sexual abuse, physical abuse, or threats of physical violence.

And nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse each year. These numbers are more than just statistics. They represent an epidemic.

An alarming number of young people will experience relationship abuse in some form long before they even enter college. But a large majority have no idea how to identify abuse, and even if they did, they may not know how to handle it. In fact, 57 percent of college students say dating violence is difficult to identify, and 58 percent have no idea how to help someone who is experiencing it. For these reasons, it is essential that teen dating violence prevention occurs long before young people get serious about dating.

How Can Teen Dating Violence Be Prevented?

To prevent teen dating violence, parents and educators need to cultivate a deeper and truer understanding of what teen dating violence is, especially among preteens and very young teens. Here are ten ways to get you started.

End it before it begins. When it comes to preventing teen dating violence, the ultimate goal is to stop the violence before it even begins. As a result, the most effective prevention begins by educating preteens and young teens about how to form healthy relationships with others.

It also involves teaching them important life skills like assertiveness and solid communication skills. They also should learn how to disagree with others in a healthy and respectful way.

Help teens recognize warning signs. Abuse and bullying in a dating relationship involve more than just hitting, kicking, slapping, and punching. In fact, most abusive relationships start out with subtle signs that many teens mistake for love. The most common warning signs are jealousy, texting and calling excessively, and insisting on spending every free moment together. At first, it is easy to believe these behaviors demonstrate how much the other person cares.

But in reality, these are controlling actions that often lead to more attempts to control. Teach your kids that any act of control or violence is a warning sign. The relationship should be ended even if the other person apologizes and promises to never do it again. Controlling behaviors and violence in a relationship usually do not improve or go away. Instead, the cycle often repeats itself. 

Empower bystanders with ideas on how to get help. There is nothing worse than watching a friend be abused by her boyfriend or girlfriend and not know what to do. Not only is abuse an extremely difficult subject to discuss with a friend, but teens need to realize that remaining silent when someone they care about being hurt is not very loving. Yes, it is a very personal topic. It's uncomfortable to talk about. But it must be done. Make sure your teen knows what to do when they witness someone being bullied or abused.

Become a trusted information source. Resist the urge to allow locker room talk, slumber parties, television, and Judy Blume books to become your teen's only source of information. Instead, initiate a conversation about relationships. Use a scene from a movie, an excerpt from a book or news story to get the conversation started. Talk about what is healthy and what is not healthy in a relationship. And don't shy away from the difficult topics like sex. And be sure to listen to what your teen has to say. Also discuss the importance of respect in a relationship. Make sure your teen knows that she deserves respect and that, likewise, she needs to be respectful to others.

Discuss the good and the bad about relationships. Most teens view dating and relationships through a romantic lens. In the beginning, they are excited, happy, and filled with hope. Be supportive of these expectations, but also prepare them for the normal ups and downs of relationships. Make sure they know that while disagreements are normal, handling them in an abusive or disrespectful way is not normal. Likewise, violence, abuse, name-calling and sexual bullying are not normal. It also is not healthy for a partner to pressure a teen to engage in sexting. Then, be sure to equip them with suggestions on how to get out of bad situations. For example, they can say: "I am not comfortable with this."

Teach teens to be assertive. Equipping kids and teens with the ability to clearly state their feelings, opinions, and desires is one of the best things a parent can do. As your kids grow, look for opportunities for them to practice sharing their thoughts and feelings. And when you can, empower them to say no to things they do not want to do. For instance, let them know that it is acceptable to ask someone to leave their home when they are being rude, disrespectful or mean. They could say something like: "I would like for you to leave now." It is also acceptable for them to turn down social engagements like going to the mall or a party. Practicing assertiveness skills early helps prepare them for the tough situations down the road like peer pressure, bullying, and dating abuse.

Talk about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. One of the first behaviors to discuss is the difference between control and collaboration. It is not uncommon for kids to want their way. But they need to learn that cannot always be the case. Explain that trying to "control" a situation by manipulating, bargaining, demanding or even bullying is not healthy. Instead, a better, healthier alternative would be to negotiate, problem-solve, or collaborate. Likewise, if someone in life, either a bullying boyfriend or a mean girl, tries to control a situation rather than work together to find a solution, they need to recognize that this is not healthy. Other behaviors to discuss are the differences between people pleasing and being giving. It is healthy to be generous and empathetic. But it is not healthy for your child to do things hoping to make someone like her.

Create a "no secrets" policy. Abusive relationships often lead to secrets. For instance, young people know that what is happening is not right, but instead of talking about it, they keep it a secret. Explain to your teens that secrets imply that something has to be "hidden" from others and hiding things is not healthy. What's more, secrecy isolates people from their family and friends. Make sure your teen knows that relationships that involve a lot of secrecy usually also contain a lot of other hurtful behaviors like manipulation. Teach your kids that being strong does not mean trying to solve their problems on their own. Instead, being strong means having the courage to tell someone about the things going on in their lives.

Know when to get involved. Anytime you recognize small changes in your child's behavior, like a change in mood, sleeping patterns or eating habits, you should take notice. Even a drop in grades, fewer friends hanging around or dropping a once favorite sport are cause for concern. Often these changes are early warning signs that something is going on in her life that is upsetting her. Ask how things are going and see what she says. She may not open up at first, but with consistent interest in her life, she may start to talk. And if your teen is being abused, do not try to handle the situation on your own. The most effective plans for getting your daughter (or son) out of an abusive relationship involve a team of people including you, a school professional, and sometimes even the police.

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