by Travis Burdick
Despite how we might cringe or blush to think of our own teens dating, relationships in our teen years can set the tone for future intimate relationships. Does their dating partner treat them as an equal, or do they try to control them? These questions are at the heart of whether a relationship is healthy or hurtful. Preventing hurtful, violent relationships in the teen years begins with talking about healthy relationships.
In our work as Violence Prevention Educators for Power Up, Speak Out! we talk to teens about healthy and unhealthy relationships. We need your help with this: if you are a parent, grandparent, or an adult who works with kids, start a conversation about dating. Let your kids know you are a resource. This can be a little uncomfortable, so we have some advice: be curious and open – a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
It’s fun to ask teenagers what they call “dating.” You will get a wide range of responses that may include “hanging out,” “being together,” “hooking up,” “being an item,” and some colorful regional variations. You probably won’t hear “going steady.” That’s okay, times and terms change, but kids still get twitterpated. Asking teens what they or their peers call dating can open up a conversation about relationships. The key thing to remember as grown-ups is to have a conversation about dating (or whatever it is called!) without casting judgment.
It can be awkward to talk to teens about dating – for all parties involved – but it is important that we keep conversations open. As soon as a teen senses that you disapprove of their relationship or their views on romance, they may magically transform into a stone-faced, silent, brooding replica of your teen. This silent brooding can further isolate a teen who really needs an ongoing, caring, adult presence to offer perspective. It is easy for teens in unhealthy relationships to feel it is them and their dating partner against the world. As adults we are there to show them they are not alone.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please call the DSVS 24 hour helpline at 425-2222.
So, what do you say? In our work with teens we describe a healthy dating relationship as one where “I get to be myself; I treat others well; I can say no; I have fun.” The statements can be used as safe, non-judgmental way to talk about relationships. If you ask a teen if they can be themselves in a relationship, it opens the possibility for more conversation and self-reflection. Talking about relationships in terms of “having fun” is a great way to offer perspective without being heavy or judgmental; our relationships should be more fun than drama.
So, take a deep breath, confront your fear of the awkward conversation and ask curious (but not prying) questions to get your teen to think about what it is they want in their dating relationships. You’ll learn something valuable and the teen will know that there is an adult who cares.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month—learn more about local prevention efforts at powerupspeakout.org. Travis Burdick and BaLeigh Harper are Violence Prevention Educators with Power Up, Speak Out!, a program of Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. They talk about serious stuff while still remaining goofy.