Adolescence is tricky. Dealing with physical changes, feeling new and big emotions, negotiating more responsibility, and figuring out your identity are serious challenges for most teens. When you add in new friendships and new types of relationships, things can seem downright impossible. Then consider the fact that many relationships we see portrayed in the media and pop culture are unhealthy at best, and it’s no wonder teen dating violence is such a pervasive issue.
So what can parents do to help their teens have healthy relationships?
Love is Respect publishes an excellent handbook for parents of teens who are dipping their toes in the dating waters. A few tips they offer include being prepared to talk whenever your teen is ready, creating distraction-free private spaces, considering your own values and experiences in advance, maintaining appropriate boundaries, and keeping the lines of communication open and free from judgment.
If your teen is already dating, it is important to check in often. Ask your teen how things are going, and about the relationships they see around them, both among peers and in the media. Look for opportunities to discuss healthy or unhealthy behaviors when you are watching TV. Remember that your teen is developing their own beliefs and identity, and it is important to be respectful of their opinion and listen without judgment. However, if you believe your child may be abusive towards their partner, you have a responsibility to address this; now is the time to interrupt these patterns of power and control-seeking behaviors.
Ideally, we would start talking to our kids about relationships early. Establishing consent and setting boundaries are crucial skills kids can learn at a young age. Though we often think of these things in the context of a romantic or sexual relationship, that is not always the case. We can teach even the youngest children to ask for consent before touching someone and we can model how to respond appropriately. We can enforce our own boundaries and respect the boundaries our kids set for themselves. Practicing these things early and often can help your teen establish healthy relationship skills, identify unhealthy behaviors, and help a friend who may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
These conversations and practices should be an ongoing process. “The talk” is not something we can scratch off our to-do list as parents; maintaining open, honest, nonjudgmental communication with our kids and teens is a vital part of our role as parents. Sometimes, these conversations may feel weird or awkward. Sometimes, your teen may not want to talk to you at all. Sometimes, it might feel like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos—you’re just not making any progress. That’s all okay! Frequent check-ins will let your teen know you are available and interested, and encourage them to come to you for guidance and support. In a world full of misinformation, knowing you are there to help navigate will make all the difference to your teen.