Do you know the average age of a U.S. teen’s first relationship? If you guessed under the age of 14, you’re right!
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, girls start dating around 12 and a half, with boys following a year later at 13 and a half. Dating can have different meanings at this age, but it’s generally around mid to late adolescence that young people begin to explore romantic partnerships and establish their sexual identity. Approximately 55% of teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18. For the majority, it was with a dating partner (74 percent for females and 51 percent for males).
For some parents, the idea of their child having a boyfriend or girlfriend is scary enough—but now factor in dating violence, a type of intimate partner violence that can occur in person or online, and many parents may find the prospect even scarier. Approximately one in 12 high schoolers have experienced physical dating violence, with one in 12 having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year, according to a 2019 report by the CDC. That’s a pretty alarming statistic, but even more so when you think of it in the context of your own child. Regardless of whether they're 6 or 16 or 60, the idea of someone treating your child with violence, disrespect, or cruelty is heartbreaking.
While the actions of your child’s present or future partners are out of your hands, parents do have an opportunity—if not a responsibility—to set an example for what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Here, we’ll offer suggestions on how to discuss healthy boundaries in relationships, signs that your child might be in an abusive situation, and how to help them safely end an unhealthy relationship.
How to help prevent dating violence for your teen
Parents play a crucial role in helping to prevent teen dating violence, according to research focused on ending intimate partner violence. The CDC has also prioritized the topic, offering an evidence-based program called Dating Matters, which is designed to equip parents of 6th-8th graders with the skills they need to speak with their kids about safe and healthy relationships.
The idea of discussing partner abuse (especially if your child isn’t even dating yet) might seem awkward, but it’s an important step in protecting your child from abusive situations later in life. In addition to the Dating Matters curriculum, below are a few ideas for speaking with your child about the importance of healthy relationships.
Consent is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and it’s a parent’s job to set that foundation early in life. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, consent is defined as a safe, open, and ongoing conversation that results in a mutual agreement between partners about what they do or don’t want to experience. Remind your child of the importance of consent in any situation, but especially in intimate partnerships.
Promote your child’s self-worth
Research shows that when teenagers feel good about themselves, they have improved mental wellbeing and are better equipped to cope with stressful life events. Teaching your teen about self-compassion and self-care can help reduce the symptoms of depression, build their self-esteem, and empower them to find partners who treat them with respect.
Lead by example
One of the simplest ways to teach your child a lesson is to show them how it’s done. Demonstrate the importance of a healthy relationship by practicing respect in your own partnerships. Healthy relationships are based on trust, honesty, and mutual respect. Other signs of a healthy relationship include:
- Open communication
- Anger control
Most teens aren’t oversharers when it comes to their relationships, but it’s important to create room for dialogue anyway. Showing a genuine interest in your child’s crush or partner might allow them to feel more comfortable sharing with you as the relationship progresses.
Signs that your child is in an abusive relationship
Teen abuse can manifest in many ways. As we’ve previously detailed on the Charlie Health blog, intimate partner violence extends beyond just physical and sexual assualt. Your child’s partner can also use emotional, digital, and financial tactics to try to control them. If you’re concerned about your child’s relationship, keep these signs in mind.
- Your teen starts to show signs of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, lack of confidence, or is unusually quiet
- Your teen changes their habits and behaviors; for example, dressing differently or becoming more dependent on their partner
- Your teen develops a poor body image, becomes very self critical, or shows a noticeable decrease in self esteem
- Your teen has unexplained injuries
- Your teen’s partner is jealous, possessive, or controlling
- Your teen’s partner has a history of abusing siblings, family, children, or pets
- Your teen’s partner makes vulgar comments about them in front of you or others
How to support a teen in an unhealthy relationship
Below are several best practices and resources to utilize if you suspect that your child is in an unhealthy relationship.
Listen before you speak
When speaking with your child about their relationship, create a space where they feel safe, heard, and not judged. It’s common for teens to worry that their parents will overreact, be disappointed, or even blame them, so it’s important to allow them to speak on their own terms, when they’re ready.
You can start the conversation by saying something along the lines of, "It seems like you might be worried about something. Want to talk about it?" but then allow your teen to have the floor to share what’s on their mind.
Remind them that it’s not their fault
Being on the receiving end of abuse can evoke feelings of shame and embarrassment. Remind your teen that the situation is not their fault and emphasize how they deserve to be treated. Some examples of reassuring and supportive phrases include: "You deserve to be with someone who treats you with respect," "This is not your fault," and "I'm worried that you feel scared and unsafe in your relationship."
Avoid ultimatums or threatening language
When you see your child in pain, it's tempting to try to take charge in the situation. And while your intentions may be good, remember that your child is currently struggling in a relationship based on just that: control. Resist the urge to give an ultimatum, and instead find more constructive solutions for helping them. Show your teen support and offer advice, but trust that they know the best time to leave the relationship.
Suggest professional mental health support
Dating violence can have a lasting impact on your teen or adolescent’s mental health. Teens who are victims of dating abuse are more likely to be depressed, develop eating disorders, and perform poorly in school, as well as show an increased risk for abusing drugs and alcohol.
If you think your child is struggling in their relationship, ask if they’d consider speaking with a counselor or therapist for professional mental health support. Charlie Health’s goal is to remind people that everyone deserves to be empowered and loved so we offer different online therapy programs based on each person’s situation and needs.
Create a safety plan together
A safety plan is a document that outlines a series of actions that can help lower a person’s risk of being hurt by their partner. It’s an opportunity to work with your child to create a protection plan based on their daily routine, technology habits, and emotional health.
Know when the situation is an emergency
Unfortunately, intimate partner violence among teens has been linked to an increased risk of suicide and homicides—especially for females. A recent study found that teen dating violence increases the risk of homicide against adolescent girls, especially when jealousy or a breakup is involved and when partners have access to firearms.
If you’re concerned about your child’s safety in their relationship, the following support lines are always available.
- Love Is Respect Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 or text the Crisis Text Line: HOME to 741741.
- Visit the NO MORE Directory to find additional resources near you
Protect your child with Charlie Health
Parenting teens can be challenging, especially when you see your child struggling or at risk of being hurt. Charlie Health works with teens and their family members to understand their specific mental health concerns and establish an individualized treatment plan. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines trauma-informed therapy, group therapy, family therapy, plus access to psychiatric support to help your child build resilience and start healing.