Preventing Sexual Abuse in Teen Dating Relationships
Five things parents can do to teach teens about healthy relationships.
Posted Sep 30, 2020
As children enter adolescence, they will likely start to express an interest in dating. While most teen romance books and movies highlight the sweet and romantic aspects of teen relationships, what is often left out of these portrayals is that one in three teenagers will be a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner during adolescence.
One large study of teens aged between 12 and 18 years found that 18 percent reported being sexually abused in their relationship. Further, if a teen identifies as LGBTQ, they are nearly twice as likely to be a victim of sexual violence during their teenage years. One study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth in grades 9 through 12 found that between 14 to 32 percent of study participants reported that they were forced to have sex against their will.
These statistics underscore the severity of sexual abuse in teen dating relationships. Further, teen dating violence may be a precursor to sexual violence in adult relationships. Thus, it is imperative that teens learn about how to form healthy relationships in their teenage years. In fact, when we look at sexual violence prevention, the programs identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with the most evidence are Safe Dates®, Dating Matters®, and Shifting Boundaries. These programs focus on teaching healthy relationship skills to teens in middle and early high school in order to prevent sexual violence.
However, most children and teens are not taught how to behave in relationships in school. More often than not, they learn what relationships look like from what they see around them on social media, TV, movies, their friends, and from the adults in their own lives. Also, a lot of what they learn is before they even start dating—between the ages of 12 and 15. Thus parents play a pivotal role in teaching their children how to have healthy relationships. Here are five strategies that parents can use to teach their children and teens about healthy relationships:
- Model a healthy relationship. Parents are probably some of the most influential people in their children’s lives and thus, they look to them for guidance. Guidance can be given not only in terms of what parents tell children but more importantly observing how their parents behave in their own relationships. Even if parents tell children to live by the Golden Rule, if they do not practice it themselves, children will notice the hypocrisy and thus the words lose meaning.
- Teach youth how to have disagreements. Everyone has disagreements, but it is how those disagreements are handled that impacts the outcome. For example, it is important to label behaviors as opposed to the person. Rather than saying the person is bad, wrong, etc., the behavior that led to negative feelings can be labeled. For instance, “when you do X, it makes me feel ….” Is more effective than “you’re mean." Further, speak to the specific incident and refrain from using words like “always” and “never." If teens learn to handle disagreements more effectively, they will also feel more comfortable navigating sexual conversations and discussing issues such as consent in their relationships.
- Teach your children and youth about healthy sexuality. While many parents are fearful that teaching children about sex will cause them to become sexually active earlier, the opposite is in fact true. Children and youth who have discussions about healthy sexuality with their parents are more likely to delay having sexual relations, practice safe sex, and decrease their risk for sexual violence. While discussions of sex and sexuality may be more appropriate as your children approach adolescence, discussions of body parts and reproduction should start when your children are much younger so that these topics become a normal topic of conversation in the household and not something shameful. If teens feel that sexuality is shameful, they will be less likely to reach out for help if they find themselves being pressured to engage in sexual behaviors before they are ready.
- Teach your teens egalitarian gender norms. While not all perpetrators of sexual violence are male, the majority are. Current theories suggest attitudes supportive of sexual violence may be learned and are based upon the way that boys and men are socialized into traditional masculine gender roles. For example, sexually experienced male teenagers may be considered cool and manly while sexually experienced female teenagers may be viewed as being promiscuous. Studies show that when societies adhere to more stereotypical gender roles there are elevated levels of sexual violence.
- Teach your teens to be upstanders and bystanders. Bystander intervention programs such as Green Dot ®and Bringing in the Bystander® teach teens and young adults about identifying sexually risky situations and stepping in. This can include challenging their friends if they are using language objectifying women or if they are making jokes about sexual violence. It could also mean intervening if they see an individual who is in an uncomfortable or high-risk situation. While the research suggests that bystander intervention programs do not prevent the perpetration of sexual violence, they do change attitudes and bystander behaviors so they are considered to be promising in their ability to prevent sexual violence.
Given the research supporting the effectiveness of teaching relationship skills to teens, reinforcing these skills and modeling healthy relationships in the home can be effective strategies in the prevention of sexual violence.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.