February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and the perfect opportunity to have a conversation with your teen or tween about the difference between healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships. If you approach the conversation with the same respect and consideration that you give to a close friend, you are going to create a stronger connection and an open line of communication with your child for future conversations.
Who should lead the conversation?
Every parent/child relationship is different. Consider who is the best person for your teen to have conversations with about dating violence. Maybe it’s you, but maybe the other parent or your partner, or an aunt/uncle or older sibling has a more open and trusted relationship with your child. Even though these important conversations may come best from another adult, you can remind your teen that you are there for them too.
Conversation tips if you think your teen is in an abusive relationship
You will be most effective if you can create a safe space for your child to share their experiences and ask for support.
Be thoughtful about your language
Teens will be more open to conversations about unfairness or unbalance in their relationship than abuse or violence. Using the word abuse is a harsh place to start from and may end the conversation before it gets started.
You may have your own experiences with past toxic relationships or friends you worried about. Make this a relatable and open conversation by talking about these experiences. Some examples could be: “My high school boyfriend always let me know when he thought I looked fat and it made me feel horrible about myself. I now know that isn’t acceptable” or “My best friend was in a bad relationship and none of us knew how to talk to her about it, so we just talked behind her back.” Let them know you can help them practice what to say to a friend.
Start with “I notice”
Choose two or three points to make about what you have noticed and then stop. If you bombard your child a long list of what’s being done to them, they will just shut down. It’s well intentioned, but it doesn’t help. Give two or three thoughts and leave it at that. Have faith that they will gradually be able to take in what you’re saying. It’s going to take time, but you are planting a seed.
You’re going to be much more effective if you listen more than you talk. Tell your child you believe them, even if what they tell you is hard to hear. “Thank you for being honest. I believe you, and what you are describing sounds like unhealthy behavior which could lead to abuse.” You are giving them a safe space to explore what is happening to them.
Ask open-ended questions
What happens when you try to talk to them about it?
Are there double standards in the relationship?
Who makes the decisions in your relationship?’
How does that make you feel?
What do your close friends think about your relationship?
Are there ever moments when you feel unsafe?
Give them space
Let them know that you can talk about this another time and that you are always here for them. You can also let them know that you will not bring it up a lot because you want to respect their privacy.
You may leave this conversation thinking that was a waste of time because your son or daughter wasn’t ready to hear what you said. The truth is you accomplished more than you realized, but you may not get a response or see change for a while.
If you observe warning signs in their relationship*, SHALVA can support you and help create a plan to help your child. Visit our website or call us at (773) 583-4673 if you have questions about what your child is experiencing or if you believe they are at-risk for dating abuse.
*Thank you to loveisrespect.org for their valuable resources.