Your teenager is starting to date and you are worried: Will they be safe? Will they have made good decisions in their relationships? Will they know where to go if they need help? A healthy dating relationship can help a teen develop a positive self-image. It is an opportunity to learn how to empathize and understand others. However, they also need to be aware of red flags that can exist in unhealthy relationships.
Your starting point is as simple and as tough as a conversation.
Quiz your children. Encourage your teen to ask themselves if they would: A. Stay in a relationship; B. Leave a relationship; or C. Stay in a relationship but proceed with caution if their partner:
Lets them do their own thing and have their own space.
Doesn’t seem to ever want them to go out with their friends.
Tells them what they should or should not wear.
Thinks they are beautiful or handsome just the way they are.
Accuses them of paying too much attention to someone else, flirting or cheating on them without good reason.
Throws things when they get angry.
Points out their strengths and good qualities.
Constantly follows them.
Tries to pressure them into doing things they are not comfortable with.
Some characteristics of healthy dating relationships are trust, equality, compassion, valuing each other’s differences, honesty, support and respecting boundaries. Communication is one of the most important aspects of any relationship.
There are three ways that people communicate and two of them can be very unhealthy:
Aggressive communication - Not listening, overruling the other person’s input and ignoring their feelings.
Passive communication - Not communicating at all. If a person doesn’t express what they are feeling, hurt, anger, anxiety, frustration can bottle up inside of them. This can lead to depression, (again) low self-esteem, substance abuse, self-harm or violent reactions.
Assertive communication - Communicates what they are honestly feeling without being aggressive or abusive. A youth might say, for example, “Honestly, I’m feeling so angry right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow?” Listening with a genuine effort to understand the other person is essential.
Ways to identify what violence and abuse are in a relationship
There are three types of violence and abuse that can exist in relationships: physical, emotional and sexual. Youth need to realize if they experience physical or sexual assault, they are also being emotionally abused. If they don’t get the right support, they can carry lifelong emotional scars.
Emotional abuse – Are they being ignored, isolated from people, controlled, corrupted, terrorized, degraded or exploited (used) by their partner? Emotional abuse is a chronic attack on a person’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, youth might not get support to deal with this, which can lead to depression or violence.
Physical assault – It is illegal to shove, grab, slap or threaten to physically harm someone. Your teen might not be aware that a seemingly ‘little’ slap could evolve into something much worse.
Are they trapped in a cycle?
This is what the cycle of violence looks like:
Two people start out in a ‘honeymoon’ stage: they are passionate and happy.
Tension can start to build up. Different kinds of emotional abuse occur.
Things escalate into a violent episode.
The tension is released.
The couple goes back to the ‘honeymoon’ stage. The abusive person feels bad about what they did. They usually promise it will never happen again.
But the cycle will continue until the relationship ends or the teens get help to deal with the issues. The law says sexual assault is when someone forces any form of sexual activity on someone else without that person’s consent: kissing, flashing, touching, fondling, intercourse or oral sex. The age of consent in Canada with regard to any type of sexual activity is 16. A 14- or 15-year-old can only consent with someone less than five years older.
Regardless of age, according to the law, consent is never considered given if:
The older person is in a position of trust or authority.
A third party says “yes” for someone else.
A person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
A person expressed a lack of agreement through words or conduct.
A person changed their mind at any point.
One person threatens or uses force.
A person is manipulated or has been forced into submission due to fear.
If they have been sexually assaulted, it’s critical they contact the police as quickly as possible – not take a shower – and go to the hospital to be checked for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. They also need counselling. Most teens won’t report their sexual assault. It is important to emphasize it is not their fault, empathize with them and get them support. Getting help is critical.
Your teen may want to determine, ahead of time, what their boundaries are in terms of sexual activity and communicate those boundaries to their partner. They can also take the initiative to ask their partner what they feel comfortable with.
If your teen has a friend who is being abused or assaulted, there are few simple things they can do to help. They can:
Listen to their friend.
Express regret and empathize.
Affirm that their friend did the right thing by telling someone.
Encourage their friend to report the incident and refer them to resources available.
Respect their friend’s privacy and not spread rumours.
What else can you do? Believe them and support them. Often teens won’t tell their parents they are being abused because they fear parental disapproval and fear disbelief. Sometimes a teen won’t let you know they’ve been abused or assaulted because they may have broken your rules at the time. You might want to let them know now if they are ever in a desperate situation, their safety and emotional well-being are more important. Identify an adult you both trust that they can talk to, if they ever feel uncomfortable discussing certain things with you. They might not tell their parents certain things because their desire is to maintain that independence. Conversation with your teen is the first step to helping them develop life-long healthy relationship patterns.
The Canadian Red Cross Respect Education: Violence and Abuse Prevention Program has been promoting safe and supportive relationships and healthy communities for over 25 years. For more information, visit redcross.ca.
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