Learning about Healthy Teen Relationships

MILLER_ELIZABETHBy Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, Chief, Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC 

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. The numbers are shocking.

● One in three women will be hurt physically or sexually by an intimate partner in their lifetime; often the abusive relationships start in adolescence.

● One in five adolescent girls reports having been physically or sexually hurt by someone she was dating.

● One in 10 high school students, both boys and girls, report being physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Young people may not always recognize that a relationship isn’t healthy as it is happening. Across our community, people are reaching out to support and educate young people about what makes a relationship healthy. Helping young men and women learn what a healthy relationship is as well as know the warning signs of abuse can help prevent abusive relationships from happening to them or their friends.

“Teen dating violence” is sometimes called “Adolescent Relationship Abuse”  because many  youth don’t describe their relationships as ‘dating’ – they may use terms like “hanging out,” “hooking up,” “talking to someone,” and many other ways to describe their romantic relationships and attractions.  The abuse can be physical or sexual violence, as well as psychological aggression and controlling behaviors. Sexual violence includes sexual harassment, sexual coercion (making someone do something sexual they don’t want to do), and rape. Prevention programs that help teens with these issues are available, but may not be getting to our young people.

One way to know if a relationship is unhealthy is the level of control that a partner has over another. A person can “control” other people by looking at their partner’s cell phone and email, telling them what to wear, who they can hang out with, making them feel bad in front of others, and much more. Someone who is controlling their partner will keep them away from friends and family. An abusive and controlling person will want to spend a lot of time with “only the two of us” or say they’ll leave or hurt people if things don’t go the way they want.

Parents don’t always see these unhealthy and controlling behaviors because they are often hidden. Teens may not realize at first that such controlling behaviors are unhealthy; they might confuse all of the attention their partner is giving them with a sign of true love.

Warning signs that parents, friends, and teens can be looking for in someone who may be in an abusive relationship include:

● No longer hanging out with friends
● Not paying attention when spoken to
● Constantly checking cell phone, getting upset when asked to turn phone off
● Less talkative than usual, more withdrawn
● Making excuses for their boyfriend/girlfriend
● Showering right after getting home
● Scratches or bruises they can’t explain

These warning signs could also be related to other things, such as depression or drug use. Any parents, adult caregivers, and friends who see these signs in someone they love should think about whether that person is in an unhealthy relationship. Supportive words like, “I’m worried about you. I just want you to know I’m here for you,” can be helpful, as well as helping a friend connect to a caring adult. The national hotline numbers are also excellent, and offer lots of guidance (completely privately) on how to help a friend or yourself.

People who use sexual coercion threaten someone into having sex. They may say things like, “You’d do this if you loved me,” or “If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll leave you.” Because they are controlled and abused, victims of sexual violence may think that they are to blame for what has happened. Sometimes, girls in abusive relationships find their partners are trying to get them pregnant on purpose. Teens don’t often tell their parents about such sexual abuse because they may feel too ashamed or guilty and they may be too afraid. Parents should be aware of the possibility of sexual abuse. Parents can also remind their children that they are never to blame if someone tries to make them do things sexually that they don’t want to do.

Advice for parents includes:

● Start talking about what a healthy, respectful relationship is early on with your child.
● Share the warning signs of teen dating abuse with your child. For example: “If you know friends who are experiencing something like this, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how you can be a good friend and help them stay safe.”
● Tell your child that they are not to blame for an unhealthy relationship.
● Make time for your children to know they can talk to you and that you’ll listen.
● Look at the resources available on teen dating abuse for youth and adults. See list of organizations below.

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
1-866-331-9474 or online chat

Suicide Prevention Hotline

Teen Runaway Hotline

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network)
1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)