HEALTHY YOU

Helping teens develop healthy dating relationships

Kids and teenagers may not instinctively understand how to forge a healthy dating relationship, but regular conversation
Kids and teenagers may not instinctively understand how to forge a healthy dating relationship, but regular conversations from an early age can help. (Adobe Stock)

Wanting to be with their boyfriend/girlfriend all the time. Checking in with them frequently. Feelings of jealousy and possessiveness.

While these may seem like relationship red flags to parents, they are also common behaviors of any teenager who is learning to navigate the emotions and social pressures of dating.

So how can you help your teen recognize when these behaviors become unhealthy and make good choices in their relationships?

You can start teaching your kids appropriate relationship behaviors even from an early age.

Alexis Chadwick, a program coordinator and advocate for Waypoint in Cedar Rapids, said there are behaviors you can talk about at each stage of children’s development.

“One of the first things we can teach/model for our children is what consent means and how to effectively communicate,” she said. “Even as young as toddler age, we can talk with them about saying yes or no about giving hugs and kisses to family members and friends.

“As for elementary school-age kids, that’s a great time to talk about friendships, how to be a good friend and how to communicate if someone makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Again, modeling how to be a nice friend and that it’s OK to say no.”

By middle school, children start to spend more time with their peers and have less parental supervision, at the same time they are going through physical changes with their bodies.

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“However, the thought is if kids have always felt like they can talk with their parents or caregivers about what makes them feel good and what makes them feel bad, the more open and honest these next conversations can be as it relates to dating,” Chadwick said.

“High school, of course, is a good time to talk relationships as well, but in some cases, if kids have never had these types of conversations before, it can be harder to get them to buy into it.”

Waypoint advocates, like Chadwick, educate teens on warning signs of dating abuse at schools and other places where teens gather.

One warning sign is an imbalance of control — if one partner makes all of the decisions in the relationship, and the other partner is fearful of their reaction if they “disobey.”

Another is teens making drastic changes in their routine, like quitting a sport or activity they really love to spend more time with their partner.

“When they are threatened with a loss of power, such as their partner breaking up with them and leaving them, that’s when escalation can occur as they try to regain that control,” Chadwick said. The abusive partner will then use assault or threats to embarrass the other partner to try to keep them in the relationship.

TEEN TO TEEN

The Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids trains upperclassmen volunteers to spot these kinds of behaviors in their peers and talk to freshman on topics such as healthy dating relationships throughout the school year.

“When we give lessons, we usually teach — if (the partner is) always trying to get on your phone, invading your privacy, trying to look through everything, control every aspect of your life,” Kennedy junior Shefa’a Tawil, 17, said.

“If they demand communication on your part but then they lack that communication. Also another warning sign is if the relationship has been broken off more than a couple times and then they get back together. That’s a sign of a toxic relationship.”

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Tawil has had freshmen approach her many times after a lesson because it struck a chord with them and opened a discussion.

“I think it’s beneficial because with topics like that, especially when it’s coming from a peer, you can trust the peer. An adult, sometimes you can’t,” Tawil said.

IF IT GETS VIOLENT

At a recent Healthy Relationships Workshop, Sgt. Laura Faircloth of the Cedar Rapids Police Department discussed law enforcement’s role in responding to teen dating violence. Police respond when physical abuse happens. Since teenagers are not able to file for protective orders, this is a chance for parents to step in.

“When a student gets a protective order and both students go to the school, it is a difficult situation,” Faircloth said. “Every situation is different and a lot of coordination is done by the school to ensure the safety of the victim.”

Faircloth advises teens to stay off social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat.

A common practice for teens these days is sharing their passwords, so if abusive messages are posted on Twitter or Facebook, it’s hard to prove who sent it. Teens also are sometimes pressured to send photos of their bodies on Snapchat, thinking the picture will disappear quickly. But the person receiving the picture can take a screenshot of it and it’s out there forever.

FOUR STEPS

While parents might want to take away phones and try to separate a teen from an abusive, if their teen is not ready for that step, it could close off any avenues for communication.

Chadwick advises parents and caregivers take four steps if they see or suspect abusive behavior either directed at their teen or being done by their teen:

1. Reflect on the situation – In your head, summarize the key points of the situation.

2. Make a connection – Try to open a conversation by empathizing with your teen and validating their feelings. Such as: “I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

3. Approach with curiosity – Ask questions to find out more about what happened. Such as: “Help me understand…” or “Tell me more about… .”

4. Expand and educate – Make sure the teen knows you care about them and are there for them, no matter what. Ask them what steps they would like to take and how they would like you to help them accomplish their goals. This empowers your teen.

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“Sometimes if parents are able to actively listen and empathize with their teen and ask them what they want to do about it first, it could open the conversation up and make the teen feel like they have some control over their life and what happens next,” Chadwick said.

“Whenever a person is harmed by their partner or anyone else, their power was taken away from them in that moment,” she said.

“As advocates, we like to give as much of that power back to them as we can, and if parents can do that as best they can, their teen might see them as helping them and walking alongside them on this journey, rather than forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.”

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