Teen dating and protecting kids from abusive partners

Almost one in five of our teens have been physically or sexually abused by their dating partner, according to research just published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Based upon a survey of 1,800 12 to 18-year-olds who had been in dating relationships in the past year, 9 percent of younger girls (12-14 years of age) and 21 percent of older teen girls (15-18 years of age) reported being victims of sexual abuse in their dating relationships. There were no such age differences with boys, with 18 percent of boys reporting being sexually victimized.

Rates of physical abuse increased as the girls got older (7 percent for younger girls, and 18 percent for older girls), whereas the relationship was reversed for boys. Younger boys were physically victimized at a rate 50 percent greater than older boys.

Dating is an important developmental milestone for our teens. Kids approach dating with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How can you protect kids from abusive relationships without catastrophizing about the risks associated with this exciting time of their lives?

1. Start early. Open discussions about healthy relationships should begin in early childhood. Teach kids about healthy relationships and the indicators of physical and sexual abuse.

Parents seem to go to extraordinary lengths to overprotect their kids from even the most minor of psychological distress, but avoid issues of their kids’ physical and sexual safety. Don’t be a wimp about these discussions. These conversations should occur often and be specific and age appropriate.

2. Use current events. Our kids are bombarded with issues of sexual and physical abuse, whether they involve famous football players or esteemed comedians. Use these stories as an opportunity to engage in frank discussion about abusive relationships.

Please be careful. Don’t judge individuals based upon media stories, since you don’t have all the facts. Rather, ask your kids lots of questions. Why do people stay in abusive relationships? How would you advise a friend in such situations? What are some early warning signs that a dating partner is potentially abusive?

3. Take it seriously. An older teen told me about her boyfriend who was becoming “overly physical” with her despite her protests. She loved him and wanted advice on how to get him to change his behavior. We’ve heard this all before, haven’t we?

My counsel was simple. Immediately break up with this guy. No one deserves to be treated in an abusive manner, and her tolerance of such behavior reflected how little respect she had for herself.

Abusive relationships stop when partners stop tolerating it. Deliver a strong and empowering message that teens must be emotionally strong enough to never accept abusive behavior from others, even when cloaked in the guise of love.

Next week: The biggest threat to your teen’s safety.

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Dr. Ramey is the executive director of Dayton Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources and can be contacted at Rameyg@childrensdayton.org.