When I found out the theme for this month was “Love” I mentally prepared a very Mary-Poppins-ish piece on if we moms truly love ourselves and how that filters down to our girl’s view of herself. It’s important, to be sure, but then I responded to some teen emails that wrecked me, and I found myself digging deeper into teen violence stats. In my research, I discovered it to be National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and the Lord has moved me to address differently.
Eighty-one percent of parents do not believe that teen dating violence is an issue or admit to not knowing it is an issue yet 1 in 3 U.S. adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. When looking at the physical side alone, the CDC discovered 1 in 10 teens to report being hit or physically hurt, kissed, touched, or physically forced into sexual intercourse in the last year. We best agree that teen dating violence is real.
I want to believe that we fail to recognize this problem because we look at these kids as young and cute. We get caught up in their butterflies and the excitement of being wanted so we err on the side of assumed mutual goodness and begin discussion of date plans and, maybe, sexual boundaries without clear definition of what is and isn’t healthy.
Of parents with children 18 and under, 73% have not had a discussion with their children about violence in the home. Likewise, 3 in 4 (73%) have not discussed sexual assault with their children even though a sexual assault occurs every 107 seconds.
We’re not doing them any favors. Our silence is begetting theirs. Only 33% of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse. It’s time that we get educated and educate the children we love. It’s time we talk.
Let’s start with a definition. Teen dating violence is explained as physical, sexual, or psychological/ emotional violence within a dating relationship, as well as stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and may occur between a current or former dating partner. Students in these relationships are at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and further domestic violence.
So what can we as parents and adults who care do to help? I’m going to propose 7 points but I want to be very clear that this is not an if/then formula. Children can take every safeguard and still be victimized. Parents can inform and and empower and might still find their shirt absorbing a broken child’s tears. We can prevent but we will never be immune. It’s important that you hear this from me because abuse is wrong and never the survivor’s fault. And, parents are not a fail because something outside of their control happened to their child.
1) Recognize that children are born with a sinful nature. While each child’s weakness is different, if you notice violent tendencies in your child ADDRESS IT. Violent behavior often begins between the ages of 12 and 18. Accepting some difficult discussions now could save a world of heartache for many down the road.
2) Define what dating violence is before your child starts dating. If they already have, talk through it now and ask if they’ve ever been hurt. I don’t believe this is a one-time parent/child discussion. It must be ongoing through their growing years. How can we expect them to come to us if we aren’t warmly putting these discussions on the table to begin with? Use television shows/movies and music lyrics as bait for discussion when you see or hear something that isn’t respectful. This should happen from the time kids are little because they are always processing messages about the bigger world around them.
3) Reconsider dating age. Twenty percent of 13 and 14-year-olds in relationships know friends who’ve been physically abused by a boyfriend/girlfriend. We can’t put little people in big people situations and think they will tolerate the pressure well. Delayed dating rules might make you unpopular but it will defer dating violence risk and give your child’s brain development time to identify unhealthy relationships and stand independently in the ways of sex, drugs, and alcohol rather than succumbing to peer group think. In our book, Pam and I suggest age 16.
4) Encourage your teen to think through the qualities that they want in a spouse. This is a big concept for students but I encourage teens to do this all the time so that they can be selective in who they date rather than saying “yes” to anyone who asks. This ensures a getting-to-know you friend phase before dating. It also buys time to study their character. My list was love God, treat women well, and desiring of a family. The 9 months my husband and I spent as friends (in our teens) gave me time to see his passion for Jesus, ask questions about future goals, and observe the way he loved his mom and sister. This doesn’t mean that “the one” will be found right away, but it likely makes your dating pool safer.
5) Practice saying “stop” and know the escape plan. Before your child goes on a date talk with her about what you consider healthy discussion, physical contact, and sexual boundaries. Help her practice saying those because it will need to be articulated to her date. Help her practice saying “stop,” too. If you have suggestions on where she can safest date (public settings, groups, etc.) use this time to encourage her. And, know the escape plan. Nowadays most teens are carrying a cell phone that a text could easily be sent and the “Find Friends” app makes location easy. Emergency services can and should be utilized in the case of the horrific, which, sadly, happens.
6) Chat and Monitor. Talk often, mamas. Discussion that might feel uncomfortable to begin with will quickly become natural and our kids will be better for it. Let them know they can tell you anything and that you want to hear about their opinions, struggles, friendships and dates. If you ever notice dramatic emotional change or that they ditch friends and previously normal activities to cling to a relationship, ask why.
7) Pray. Pray for your child and with your child. This simple act translates love and reminds that you are held by a God who cares about every detail, wishing to bring you and your child hope and a future through every circumstance.
Family and marriage is on the line. We can pretend teen dating violence away and create an emotional chasm with our kids + miss setting up healthy trust boundaries for the future, perpetuating the problem. Or, we can turn on our voices on and transform hurt into hope.
It’s time to speak up.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7