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What Parents Should Know About Teen Dating

May 29, 2011 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
When it comes to their teenagers’ dating habits, parents may think they have the answers, though it’s more likely they know little about the ways teens initiate and conduct intimate relationships.

Teen Dating in the 21st Century

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Barbara Whitaker of Good Housekeeping magazine explained that while teens are “pairing off” at around the same age, between 12 and 14 years old, dating practices are different than they were generations ago.

Technology has changed the way teenagers meet and make plans. Instead of calls to a house phone, teens use cell phones, e-mail and Twitter. When a boy showed up to take her daughter on a date by calling from the driveway, Tami Beck, a mother of two in Shawnee, Kan., told her daughter, “Tell him he needs to come in. Your parents want to meet him,” Good Housekeeping reported.

When your teen is ready to date, it’s important to establish “ground rules.” The U.S. Department of Health and Family Services’ Family Guide suggests a balance between helicopter parenting and a laissez-faire approach.

However strict or easygoing parents choose to be, it’s important that they maintain an open dialogue. “Dating is a big deal to teens," the Family Guide notes. "They need you to stay involved and attentive to what’s going on.”

Many teens go out in groups instead of one-on-one, so teenagers may actually feel more pressure to do things they feel uncomfortable doing.

Sabrina Weill, author of “The Real Truth About Teens and Sex,” told Good Housekeeping that it’s crucial to teach your teenagers to think for themselves. Weill suggests asking your teen, “If nobody was drinking a beer, would you? If nobody your age was having sex, would you?”

It’s equally important for teens to know they can rely on their parents. If your teen wants to leave a date or an outing, no matter the time or the circumstance, it's important to let her know you'll come pick her up. Denise Witmer, a writer for About.com, adds, “You will do so without any consequences to your teenager with the understanding that everyone makes mistakes in judgment.”

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The Signs of Dating Violence

Often technologies like cell phones can be used to control a partner, unbeknownst to others. Psychotherapist Dr. Jill Murray refers to such psychological warfare as “an electronic leash."

"I’ve had girls come into my office with cell phone bills showing 9,000 text messages and calls … 'Where are you? Who are you with? Who are you talking to?'” Murray shared with ABC News.

A study from the Teenage Research Unlimited for the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) and Liz Claiborne Inc., found that although 82 percent of parents think they know the signs of dating violence, more than 58 percent were unable to properly recognize every sign of abuse. FVPF President Esta Soler said, “It concerns us that about one-third of parents don’t recognize that isolation from family, being kept away from family by a dating partner, and isolation from friends can be danger signs.”

The survey also found that dating violence has become even more prevalent amid the recession. According to the report, available in PDF format via the FVPF Web site, “Nearly half of all teens whose families have experienced economic problems in the past year report having witnessed their parents abusing each other.” Not surprisingly, the study determined that these same teens are more prone to dating violence in their own relationships.

Is Your Teen in an Abusive Relationship?

Love Is Not Abuse publishes “A Parent’s Guide to Teen Dating Violence,” a handbook that catalogs 10 behaviors common to girls in unhealthy relationships. Warning signs include “She stops seeing friends and family members,” “She loses interest in activities that she used to enjoy” and “She apologizes for his behavior and makes excuses for him.”

The handbook also provides guidelines for discussing dating violence, including handling a conversation with the suspected abuser. Jackson Katz, leader of the program Mentors in Violence, added, “If parents have any reason to suspect their son might be mistreating his girlfriend … they have a special responsibility to address this.”

According to ScienceDaily, a 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Study found that one in 11 adolescents, both male and female, reported being victims of dating abuse. Although most risk factors were the same across genders, "[p]oor body image was a significant predictor of PDV in females but not in males, whereas illicit drug use was a significant predictor in males but not in females." Dr. Saba Masho, lead researcher of the study, said, “It is imperative that counselors and care providers are aware of the gender differences in the predictors of physical dating violence in adolescents.”

Abuse in Teen LGBTQ Relationships

In a “National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Initiative” report issued by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2006, teen same-sex relationships were discussed. 

The ABA report notes a study cited in the Journal of Adolescent Health article, “Prevalence of Partner Violence in Same-Sex Romantic and Sexual Relationships in a National Sample of Adolescents,” which found that adolescents in same-sex dating situations “are just as likely to experience dating violence as youths involved in opposite sex dating.”

An article by adolescent health worker Dania Sacks March, published on LiveStrong.com, discusses abusive relationships among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youths. March reports that “up to 50% of people who identify as LGBTQ will experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner.”

Although the “types of abuse may be the same” regardless of sexual orientation, teens in LGBTQ relationships may have more difficulty dealing with abuse. The “added layer of internal or external discrimination, isolation, or pressure” experienced by LGBTQ teens can compound abusive situations, March writes. She offers solutions at the end of the article.

Related Topic: Rihanna case spotlights teen dating violence

When teenagers answered an online survey in 2009 on the Web Site Pangea Pulse, cited by The Tampa Tribune, 60 percent said pop singer Rihanna should break up with Chris Brown, after allegations surfaced that he physically abused her. But 24 percent said “they should try to work it out” and another 16 percent said “she must have done something wrong.”

A similar survey conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission found that almost half of the 200 Boston students interviewed blamed Rihanna for Brown’s alleged violence against her. Troubled by the survey results, the Middlesex County District Attorney's office created a public service video contest to help educate teens about dating violence.

The winning video will become part of the health curriculum in Boston schools. It will also receive professional polishing from a Boston ad agency and be sent to Boston television stations.
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