The best time to talk to your kids about dating violence is before they start dating. Talking early and often with your kids gives you the chance to promote a positive message about what rights and responsibilities they have in a healthy relationship. Having these conversations often and from a young age can help your child’s self-respect so that when they start dating, they know what they have a right to expect from their partners.
You know your child best, so look at some of our ideas for starting these conversations and think about how you would adapt them for your child’s age, maturity, and personality. You’re in the best position to know how to have these conversations in a way that feels open, honest, and natural with your child.
Tips before you talk: building a space for openness
- Talk to your child every day. Your family’s schedule is probably pretty busy. But making consistent time to talk with your child can help you learn more about his or her world—friends, school, sports, and everything else. If you and your child are in the habit of being open with one another, it’ll be easier to start the conversation about tougher issues later on. Some ways to make time to talk might be having regular dinners together, or turning off the radio in the car and using that time for conversation.
- Recognize that your kids’ relationships matter. One study reports that nearly 90% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 say that they’ve been in at least one dating relationship. While to us these relationships may seem short-lived and inconsequential, for teens, dating relationships are among the most significant and are interconnected with their friendships, peer group relationships and social status. If your kids want to talk about dating, listen to hear their perspective on how important these relationships are.
- Ask about your child’s world. You’ve probably noticed that your child is in tune with different celebrities, movies, and media than you are. There’s probably a lot going on at school you don’t hear about. Showing an interest in the things your child finds important can help you two to develop honest and consistent communication.
- Be aware of how you talk about violence. It’s easy for parents to react to teen dating violence (TDV) by saying (or thinking) something like, “If I ever found out her boyfriend was abusing her, I’d kill him.” It’s normal to be defensive and protective of your child, and to be emotional about the idea of your child experiencing dating violence. But saying things like this out loud and around your son or daughter can actually work against you by making your kids hesitant to talk to you about TDV. When violence comes up on television, in the news, or in conversation, use it a chance to reassure your child that you’re there for him or her and want them to talk to you about these things.
Talking with your child to promote healthy relationships
Talking with your kids about healthy relationships is such an important part of preventing dating violence, and by being proactive and starting this conversation early, you can have a huge impact on how your child approaches all of his or her relationships. Often it’s tempting to wait to talk about these tough issues until our kids bring them up. But starting the conversation from an early age and talking often is the best way to teach your children before they start dating what rights they have in a relationship.
There are lots of ways that you can promote healthy relationship behaviors with your kids before they start dating. We’ve highlighted five topics of conversation you can bring up with your kids to encourage them to respect themselves and others. Each topic includes “teachable moments” where it might be natural to strike up this conversation with your child, some questions you can use to start the conversation, and some “talking points” you might want your child to take away from your conversation. As always, we know that you know your child best, and you can adapt our topics and ideas to your own relationship in a way that feels comfortable for you.
Try talking about these issues whenever you have a chance to be comfortable with your child. You can bring up these talking points at dinner, in the car, or use “teachable moments” from TV, books, and movies to start these conversations with your child.
- Talk about self-respect. Encourage your child to respect herself or himself enables them respect others and expect it return.
- Questions to start the conversation: What things do you do to show that you matter? Why is it important to respect yourself? How do you show respect to yourself? Some examples with young kids might be: I brush my teeth/get good sleep/ eat healthy foods because my body is worth respecting. Or, as kids get older: I stand up for myself if someone criticizes me unfairly. Or, I work hard at school because my mind and emotions are worth respecting.
- Take-away points: Thinking about respect and what they need physically and emotionally to feel healthy is good preparation for understanding what others need and deserve in relationships.
- Talk about respecting others. Kids need to learn that all people in their lives deserve respect just as they do. Ask about your kid’s experience with discrimination and reinforce that positive relationships mean respecting everyone.
- Questions to start the conversation: Have you ever heard someone at school be teased because they were different? How do you think this makes them feel? How can you show others that you respect them?
- Take-away points: It’s always demeaning to make negative comments about someone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation. Your language and actions can show others you respect them.
- Talk about healthy conflict resolution and anger control. Help your children to recognize their personal warning signs for anger and talk to them about how they can express their emotions in healthy ways. Help them to understand that anger is a normal part of life and that disagreements happen between people, even people who care about each other. But the way we manage those conflicts can result in successful resolutions that strengthen relationships, or in unfair or aggressive ways that can hurt someone. When problems come up in your home, talk to your children about compromise and problem solving, and how to see both sides of a conflict.
- Questions to start the conversation: How do you feel when someone gets too aggressive in a game or competition? How can you tell when someone’s anger has gone too far? How can you communicate anger with respect?
- Take-away points for your kid: It’s never okay to use violence to control someone or to solve a problem. It’s okay to be angry, but anger should be expressed in a way that doesn’t hurt you or anyone else.
- Talk about what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Long before they’re dating, kids can start learning about giving and receiving respect and trust within their friendships. Talk to them about what makes their friendships healthy or unhealthy and use these as jumping-off points to talk about healthy dating relationships.
- Questions to start the conversation: What makes a friendship good? What are your friend’s relationships like? Whose relationship would you most want yours to be like?
- Take-away points: The behaviors we exhibit are a matter of choice. When we’re in relationships, we have to work hard to make sure they’re healthy, respectful, and equal.
- Talk about what an abusive relationship might look like. Talk to your child about teen dating violence before they start dating. These can be hard conversations, so make sure you’re listening and trying to understand what behaviors your child thinks are normal or not normal in relationships. Talk to your child about red flags (Harriet: can we include a hyperlink here back to the warning signs at the top of page 2?) in dating relationships and how they could support a friend who’s being hurt. Let them know they can always come to you without fear of punishment if they ever hear about abuse or are being hurt themselves.
- Questions to start the conversation:
- Why might someone stay in an abusive relationship? Some ideas: She may think it’s better to be in an abusive relationship than none at all, she may want the abuse to stop, but still care deeply about her partner, she may fear how her family will react, etc.
- What can you do if you have a friend who is threatened in their relationship?
- Have you ever seen any kind of abusive behavior between people you know who are dating?
- What would you want from me, as your parent, if you were going through something like this?
- Take-away points: It’s never okay to physically, emotionally, or sexually hurt someone in a relationship. It’s never a victim’s fault if someone decides to hurt them. There are a range of supportive resources available if she or he experiences TDV, or has a friend who is experiencing TDV.
- Questions to start the conversation:
Studies have shown that teens who are experiencing abuse are more likely to tell a friend about it than a parent, coach, or teacher. So assure your child that he or she can always talk to you about their relationships, but remind them that there are other anonymous, safe sources they can look to for support. We recommend the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, Love Is Respect, and other links included on our resources page.
What if your child is experiencing abuse?
If you suspect that your child is involved in a violent dating relationship, your protective parent instincts are probably on high alert. It’s okay if you’re feeling scared, angry, overwhelmed, and unsure how to react. But the most important thing is to try and connect with your teen. Don’t wait for her to approach you. Find an opportunity to talk where you can be alone without any distractions and you’re calm enough to talk without getting angry or upset. Let your child know you want to talk, maybe even in a text or an email, and that you want to set aside time together.
Before you talk to your child, it may be a good idea for you to talk through some of your own feelings with someone you trust, such as a friend or a spiritual leader. It’s normal for you to be scared, anxious, or angry and you have the right to express these feelings. Venting some of this before you talk to your child may help you to stay calm and focused on her needs if she decides to open up to you.
Remember that as confusing and scary as this situation is for you, your child is probably just as scared and needs consistent support from you. Here are some points on how to talk to your child if you think she’s being abused:
- Tell your child that you’re worried for their safety. Expressing your concern invites your child to talk with you, unlike making demands or giving advice, which can make it difficult for him or her to be honest.
- Be supportive and understanding. It can be so hard to be understanding when your own emotions may seem uncontrollable. But remember that what your child needs is your patience and support. Your child may say things that don’t make sense to you—like that she loves the person who’s hurting her. Do everything you can to listen, support, and understand without judging.
- Help them develop a safety plan. If your child decides that they’re ready to leave the relationship, talk about things you can do to help keep her safe. The most dangerous point for a person in an abusive relationship is when she decides to leave. Break the Cycle has safety planning tips specifically for teens or college students planning to end an abusive relationship.
- Remember that the decision to get out of the relationship has to be up to your teen. You may want to forbid your teen from seeing her boyfriend, but remember that only she can make the decision to get out of the relationship. Demanding your child end the relationship may only make it harder for her to talk to you while not actually changing whether or not she has contact with her abuser.
In adult domestic violence situations, we often make the mistake of thinking that the solution is for the abused partner to just leave, without considering the difficulties and challenges that women face in making that decision. For more information contact Crisis Connection.
For teenagers, we may be even more likely to make this mistake because the partners in the relationship usually don’t live together, or share property or children. But remember that your teen’s partner has probably become an important part of his or her life. In addition to the emotional ties, your child’s life probably intersects with their partner’s in all kinds of places—at school, in their social groups, at work, in their extracurricular lives, and anywhere else. Don’t minimize how difficult this decision may be for your teen.
- Remind them that no matter what, you love them and you will support them through this situation. It’s so important to communicate to your child that she is not alone. If her abuser has tried to isolate her from family and friends so far, it’s especially important that she knows she can go to you about anything.
- Look into other resources, including legal services, counseling services, as well as help and chat lines if your teen needs to talk. Understand that it’s probably hard for your child to talk to you about this. She may fear disappointing you or feel guilty about coming to you. If your teen doesn’t want to confide in you about the abuse, let her know that’s she’s not alone and that there are other people she can go to. Check out our “resources” tab for more ideas. Always finish this conversation by reminding her that when she’s ready, you’ll be there to talk.
- To parents of sons: What if he discloses he’s being abused? While nationally, most adult victims of domestic violence are female, teenage boys and girls experience violence at much closer rates. While the ways men and women experience abuse differ (for example, girls are more likely to have serious physical injuries from abuse), it still a serious problem for men and should be taken just as seriously. Your son may feel ashamed or guilty about the abuse he is experiencing, and may feel that he should be responsible for ending the abuse on his own. Because domestic violence is often treated as a “women’s issue,” he may feel alone and scared as a male victim. Reassure him that what’s happened is not his fault and that experiencing violence is nothing to be ashamed of. Give him resources and options just as you would any other survivor of domestic abuse. If it’s helpful for him, encourage him to speak to a male role model he respects, such as a coach or a teacher, who can also support him.
What if your child is abusing someone else?
Our society makes it hard for young girls and boys to build healthy ideas about romance and dating. In music, television, and movies, jealousy and possessiveness are treated like normal parts of being in love. Boys get confusing messages that being masculine is about being tough and aggressive. Girls also have to struggle with “mean girl” stereotypes about using manipulation and coercion in their relationships. With all the conflicting information that kids hear about what normal relationships, romance, and gender roles should be like, it can be really hard for kids to know what’s expected of them in a healthy and equal relationship.
Abusive behaviors might include:
- Showing excessive/obsessive interest in their dating partner
- Monitoring their partner’s behavior through excessive calls, texts or social networking posts
- Exhibiting controlling or dominant attitudes toward their dating partner
- Making excuses for these behaviors
If you’re noticing some of the early warning signs of abusive behavior in your son or daughter, now is the best time to talk to them about it. Without intervention, milder forms of abuse tend to escalate—for example, what seems like routine childhood teasing between friends could turn into something much bigger later in life. You may be the best person to intervene and support your son or daughters’ decision to change his or her behavior.
- Tell your child that you love them and that part of loving your child is wanting the best for their relationships. Explain to your child why you’re concerned using specific examples of his/her behavior you find problematic. Point out that hurtful behavior has consequences in relationships, and can be isolating and damaging for everyone in the long run.
- Assure your child that their behavior is controllable and you’re confident they can change. Your child may feel as though their behavior is out of control. Affirm that your child has the ability to change and make their own decisions about how they will treat other people. By using examples to demonstrate that abusive behavior is a choice (ie, could you control your behavior if a teacher, parent, member of school staff entered the room?), you can empower your child to think about his or her behavior and to make better decisions.
- Ask why they think their behavior got to this point. Your child could be holding on to ideas about men and women, dating, or interpersonal relationships that are hurtful. Maybe they think aggression is a part of being a man, or that manipulating other girls is part of normal adolescent relationships. Ask questions to understand your child’s reasoning better, and gently challenge attitudes and beliefs you think are problematic.
- Offer support, and counseling if necessary. Keep checking in with your child. One conversation probably won’t be enough to change attitudes and behavior. Keep an eye on the way they continue to treat others and ask often about how their relationships are going. Follow your instincts. If you think your child needs outside support, such as a counselor, a local shelter, youth organization, or your school may be able to give you a list of referrals.