Helping Teens Understand Unhealthy Dating Relationships

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February 27, 2017

Most adults would agree that the teen years can be a vulnerable period.  Teens juggle the mastery of many tasks during this phase.  One of the most important is developing the tools needed to form healthy partner relationships.  Unfortunately, for many teens, an introduction to unhealthy relationships occurs during this time.  According to the CDC, 1 in 4 teens say they’ve been verbally, physically, emotionally or sexually abused by a dating partner.  And, about 10% of teen students say they’ve been physically hurt by a partner in the past year.  A high percentage of teens experiencing these behaviors do not tell their parents or other significant adults in their lives.

The effects of teen dating violence can be quite severe.  The CDC reports that its victims are more likely to experience eating disorders and depression, do poorly in school, be involved in drug and alcohol use and continue being involved with unhealthy intimate relationships into adulthood.  And, teen girls who suffer from dating violence are more like to have an unintended pregnancy.

Parents, health care providers, and teachers are among those in critical positions to help teens understand what unhealthy relationships look like.  What’s the best approach?  As with any problem, there are many ways to be proactive.  However, making sure teens know what to look out for is an important first step.  Some examples of unhealthy dating behaviors highlighted by the advocacy group, Futures Without Violence, are presented below. 

The health and safety of any teen experiencing these behaviors may be in jeopardy:

Being hit, slapped, pushed, or kicked

Called insulting names or being overly criticized

Prevented from engaging with family and friends

Being humiliated, either in person or online

Experiencing control over where they go, what they wear or what they do

Feeling pressured to do participate in sexual acts

There are many measures that adults can take to support teens in developing healthy partner relationships and avoiding unhealthy, potentially harmful ones.  Parents, in particular, are on the front line in addressing this issue with their teens. 

Some “common sense” guidelines include:

Modeling healthy behaviors in your own partner relationships

Promoting the importance of self-respect

Communicating to teens that abuse, in any form, is never acceptable

Looking for changes in behavior such as moodiness or increased irritability that  teens suffering from an unhealthy partner relationship may exhibit

Observing for signs of unhealthy behaviors in a teen’s dating partner and speaking up about your concerns 

Pointing out examples of unhealthy partner relationship on tv, in the movies, and on social media outlets

If you are concerned that a teen you know is at risk of or is possibly in an unhealthy dating relationship, seeking guidance from a school counselor, health care provider or spiritual advisor can be an important first step.  Online assistance can be obtained from several organizations including Futures Without Violence and Love is Respect.  Concerted and proactive efforts are needed to ensure that every young person understands what constitutes an unhealthy dating relationship, feels empowered to resist being in one, and is able to reach out for guidance if they are ever a victim.

Sheila Overton, MD, FACOG, is an OB/GYN physician who practices in Rockville, Maryland.  She has lectured and written extensively on teen sexual health and is the author of “Before It’s Too Late: A Parent’s Guide on Teens, Sex, and Sanity”,  HYPERLINK “”