Recognizing and Responding to Teen Dating Violence Toolkit
3.2 What Your Child Should Know
It is through relationships that we learn how to trust others and ourselves. We learn that while conflict is present in romantic relationships, it is not always a negative thing. The importance of communication is also a skill learned through relationships, especially when working through conflict. It is through relationships that we learn what is important to us, how to set boundaries, what we will and will not tolerate, and when it is time to move on from a relationship.
When looking at social media, television, or friends’ and relatives’ relationships, we only see what someone wants us to see of their life. Social media is curated content. People post things on social media for a variety of reasons, including the likes and follows. Even as adults, we easily forget that we are not seeing the whole picture of a person’s life, and we do not know what occurs in relationships behind closed doors. Due to the prevalence of, and dependence on, social media for reassurance, acceptance, connection, and information, our children likely have an inaccurate perception of what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. We look to the world around us, online, and in person to gauge whether our relationships and behavior are typical.
Relationships have their ups and downs, including those with family, friends, peers, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is never too early to discuss healthy relationships with your child. Look for opportunities to point out positive examples and characteristics in relationships while spending time together. Some parents might believe that they should never argue in front of their children, and other parents may believe that it is good for children to see disagreements to learn how to navigate conflict. If you and your partner have a disagreement or argument, after things calm down, you can use it as a teachable moment with your child. For example, “Do you remember when your dad and I got into a disagreement yesterday about the house needing to be cleaned? Even when we get into disagreements or conflicts, we still love each other. It is normal for people in healthy relationships to disagree at times. If we start getting upset, we take a break and then we talk about it later so that we can figure out how to fix the problem.”
Asking your children questions such as, “What does a good relationship look like?”, “Is conflict or arguing normal in relationships?” or “What would you think if your partner wanted you to spend all your free time with them?” may provide surprising insights into their belief systems about relationships.
Talk with your children about the importance of asking themselves how a person makes them feel. These questions help us identify whether a person should or should not be in our life. It may be that the other person is not a bad person, but we learn that we feel bad about ourselves when we are around them. Identifying how we feel when we are around a person can alert us to things our body can sense that our brain is not yet aware of.
Ensure your child knows the warning signs of an abusive relationship, that dating violence is never their fault, and there is nothing they can do to make someone abusive toward them. Reassure your child that they can talk with you, or another trusted adult, about anything, and that you are a team. Remember that the goal is to have open dialogue, rather than a lecture, and it is best to have these conversations regularly. Talk with your child about what to do if they are concerned about a friend experiencing dating violence. Options can include telling you, using the anonymous reporting system at school, or speaking with a school counselor, another trusted school staff member, or a member of the school’s threat assessment team (See Section 3.5 for more information about threat assessment.) The important thing for your child to know is that violence tends to escalate over time and that abuse does not usually stop on its own.
The adage “more is caught than taught” is especially true in our homes. Our children watch us, and they model their relationships after what they see in our marriage, friendships, family, and how we treat people in general. If we have a partnership or marriage where we speak down to each other, yell, throw things, avoid difficult conversations, and don’t communicate well with each other, our children are likely to do the same because it is what is familiar. It is difficult, but not impossible, to change our behavior. If you recognize that you are setting an example that you don’t want to be setting, a therapist, for example, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), can help. We lead by example, and seeking help when we need it gives our children a better chance at having healthy relationships.