The Web of Violence

Exploring violence and victimization

It's Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

Parents, do you know where your adolescent is?

Teen dating violence affects more than 2 million adolescents every year, based on estimates by the CDC. Here's what parents need to know about teens and dating and when to be concerned.

Normal teen dating behavior

It is completely normal for teens to start to get interested in romantic relationships as they grow through the adolescent years. Most parents know this. However, not everyone realizes that there is a developmental process here. Children do not learn to walk on their first attempt, they don't get toilet-trained overnight and all sorts of developmental milestones from tying their shoes to riding a bicycle to learning to read take practice, practice, practice. Dating is no different. In fact, it is more difficult than many of these earlier tasks (many adults who managed to learn to read and tie their shoes never get very good at close relationships).

Adolescents handle these new developmental challenges the same way that they did the earlier ones, by experimenting. Developmental psychologists have shown that children follow "scripts" as they transition from childhood play to interactions with more sexual overtones. Childhood play during the elementary years is often focused on same-sex groups—boys play more often with other boys and girls with other girls. There are several scripts for moving beyond childhood play. Most of this research has been on the development of heterosexual relationships; less is known about children with other sexual orientations although many of these processes are probably similar.

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There is the "accidental" touch—bumping or tripping. There is the "incidental" touch, such as passing books. There are also the joking or "pretend hostile" touching, with a certain amount of wrestling and horseplay being normative during adolescence and even young adulthood. Sometimes this can look aggressive, but it is through the use of hostile humor that they sometimes create opportunities for physical contact with the opposite sex of the person they "like." We've all seen instances of this sort of teasing. As Eleanor Maccoby and other developmental psychologists have noted, the key feature of all of these interactions is that they allow the youth to deny that there was any romantic or sexual interest involved in the contact. In this way, they remove some of the risk and allow some practicing of physical approach. These may not be a youth's finest moments, but for the most part these are not problematic behaviors.

The result can be confusing for parents, teachers, and other adults. How to tell the difference between this and more worrisome behavior? Well, there's a certain amount of judgment involved (the kind of judgment that "zero-tolerance" policies generally get wrong or try to avoid).

However, there are differences between this kind of normative joking and kidding around and more worrisome behavior. As with most features of romantic relationships, they are mostly matters of degree. So, parents, you have to tune in.

Jealousy, Monitoring, and Control vs Trust and Respect

Hyper-jealousy is probably the #1 most worrisome factor for teen relationships. Yes, it is normal to fantasize that you have met your one true love at the ripe age of 16 or 17, but it is not normal to impose a set of rigid expectations on your partner. Are they keeping obsessive track of them on Facebook, Foursquare or Instagram? (Yes, parents, it is your job to keep up-to-date with social media applications and how they are being used in the lives of teens.) Does your teen's partner make them send photo proof that they are where they say they are? Sure, these days youth text and post and otherwise check-in with their peers a lot. However, if your teen seems anxious about it or feels obligated to reassure their partner, that is a sign that something is wrong. Don't wait to ask questions until you see bruises or other evidence of physical and sexual assault. 

Substance Use and Vulnerability

Under-age drinking is also one of the biggest risk factors for victimization. It is important not to blame victims and just because teens have experimented with alcohol does not mean that they are "asking for it." However, there is little question that substance use—alcohol and other drugs—increases the risk of both perpetration and victimization. Many drugs, including alcohol, increase perpetration risk by reducing impulse control or creating expectations about how to follow the "alcohol script"—they are imitating, based in part on TV and the movies, how they think drunk people are "supposed" to act. Many drugs, including alcohol, also increase the chances of becoming a victim because they can interfere with a person's ability to notice signs of danger.

What Parents Can Do

It is also a normal developmental process for teens to push for more independence from their parents, but that does not mean that parents cannot push back. Some monitoring is needed throughout the teen years and even into the early 20s. They will thank you later, even if they are mad now. Ask questions, show interest, be a safe person to talk to about relationships and peer pressure.

Times are changing when it comes to dating and marriage. In the U.S., women are now about 27 and men about 29 years old at the age of first marriage. "Dating" is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago, when the parents of today's teens were themselves teenagers. Encourage group activities. Suggest school events that are less about pairing up than the old standards such as proms. These can include trips to concerts or sporting events or movies—almost anything that is not about having a "date." Promote norms of later marriage. Teen marriages are very seldom happy or longlasting. It is better for youth to wait.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Use Valentine's Day to promote family relationships and friendships. Start a new family tradition for Valentine's Day, such as a family dinner or family outing. Or use the opportunity to express your love for your community or for those less fortunate than yourself, and make it an opportunity for giving. Make February for friends and family.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South.

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