The Hidden Dangers of Teen Dating

My 17-year-old son started dating this year, a lovely young woman who has been a friend since seventh grade. They are both nearly adults in age, but still adolescents in many ways. As parents we discuss everything from sexting to STDs to pregnancy with our son, and I know her mom does the same. We have planted books that contain answers to questions he may be embarrassed to ask. But it honestly never occurred to us to talk to him about domestic violence. He does not witness violence in his home, but he certainly sees plenty of it in the media, from games to YouTube to movies.

Domestic violence – specifically teen dating violence – is not a topic we should ignore simply because it is not part of our experience. Just because a child does not experience violence at home doesn’t mean they are not susceptible to violence – as victims or abusers. Here are some important facts from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • 1 in 11 female teens experienced physical dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 15 male teens experienced physical dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 9 female teens experienced sexual dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 36 male teens experienced sexual dating violence in the last year
  • 26% of women and 15% of men who have experienced domestic violence had their first experience before the age of 18
  • LGBTQIA teens are more likely to experience dating violence than their heterosexual peers
image credit: CDC

Many parents are unaware of these statistics and may also be unaware of how teen dating violence is defined. There are four types:

  • Physical violence – when one partner harms another by hitting, kicking or otherwise physically assaulting them
  • Sexual violence – forcing or attempting to force a partner into performing a sexual act; includes sexual touching but also includes unsolicited non-physical sexual activity such as sexting
  • Psychological aggression – using verbal or non-verbal communication to exert control and/or inflict harm on another person mentally or emotionally
  • Stalking – unwanted attention and contact that is systematically repeated in order to cause fear and attempt to control the behavior and activity of the other person

Some of these behaviors, such as sexting, can start at a very early age. Children commonly get their first smart phone at age 10 and a discussion about sexting needs to happen before their personal phone is placed in their hands. Both boys and girls need to understand what kind of pictures are OK and which are not OK. They also need to understand that unsolicited sexual overtures cause the recipient to experience the same kind of distress and anxiety as if they had been physically sexually harassed.

There are a number of behaviors to look out for if you are concerned your child is experiencing or perpetrating dating violence (from the National Domestic Violence Hotline website):

  • Your child’s partner is extremely jealous or possessive to the point where your child stops spending time with other friends and family. When asked how they feel about this, your child might say something like: She thinks my friends don’t like her, so she doesn’t like spending time around them. Or, she thinks they’re a bad influence on me, and she’s just trying to help.
  • You notice unexplained marks or bruises.
  • You notice that your son or daughter is depressed or anxious.
  • Your child stops participating in extracurricular activities or other interests.
  • Your child begins to dress differently; for example, wearing loose clothing because their partner doesn’t like for them to show off their body or attract the attention of someone else.
  • Your child worries if they can’t text/call their partner back right away because their partner might get upset.
  • Your child expresses fear about how their partner will react in a given situation.

It’s important to stay tuned in to your teen as they make their way in the dating world. Teens who experience abuse or violence in their adolescent relationships are at much higher risk in college and adulthood. Teen victims may experience depression or anxiety; may use drugs to escape; may pass along the violence they experience in anti-social behaviors like lying, shoplifting, bullying, or physically abusing others (younger siblings can become a target); or may experience suicidal ideation or even attempt suicide.

Open a communication channel about healthy relationships with your children starting at a young age. Encourage them to think critically about the health of their friendships as those behaviors form the basis for their intimate relationships. Most of all, be that non-judgmental listening ear so they know that you will love and support them in all aspects of their lives.

For more information and resources, visit the CDC’s Dating Matters website.

– Kathy Henry is the adoptive mom to two amazing young men; a writer and business marketing consultant; and an active volunteer in her public school, Unitarian Universalist church, and community.

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