My first serious relationship in high school ended after a year-and-a-half when my boyfriend verbally abused me and then kicked me a few weeks later. The verbal abuse should have been my “aha” moment, but I was too bonded to the guy (we were “in love” and having sex) to see it for what it was. When I discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the classroom, I use my own story as a jumping off point to discuss how to avoid (or get out of) unhealthy or abusive relationships, and how to build healthy dating habits instead. Sexual harassment and dating violence aren’t new, but what IS new is how much the #MeToo movement has brought these issues into the light. The things we are talking about in society now are things I’ve been talking to teens about for almost 20 years, so I’m happy to see this issue getting the attention it deserves.
What do we know about teen dating violence? Well, it’s prevalent. From Ascend (which promotes sexual risk avoidance education), we find out that:
• 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 7.4% of high school students report having been forced to have sex
• Nearly 12% of high school females reported physical violence from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed. For high school males, more than 7% reported physical violence and about 5% reported sexual violence from a dating partner.
The risk of having unhealthy relationships increases for teens who:
• Believe that dating violence is acceptable
• Are depressed, anxious, or have other symptoms of trauma
• Use drugs or illegal substances
• Engage in early sexual activity and have multiple sexual partners
• Have a friend involved in teen dating violence
• Witness or experience violence in the home
If your child is dating, or just beginning to think about and talk about dating, the best preparation you can give your teen is lots of conversation, based around questions such as these:
What does a healthy relationship look like? Unhealthy? How do you want to be treated in a relationship? Where do your peers get their ideas about dating from? Where do they get their ideas about sex from? Are these sources reliable? Realistic? Respectful? What are the warning signs that a relationship is abusive? (Take them to this article, and go over the questions to help them recognize an abusive relationship). How much should you know someone before you even start the physical (even a kiss can bond you to someone, and bring on the “love is blind” syndome)? What would it look like to build a friendship first? How can your family help you determine if your date is a good person for you? How can you help a friend who you suspect is in an abusive relationship?
Some school districts, according to one article on teens and the neuroscience of risky behavior, have taken to heart studies that connect sleep deprivation to teen risk-taking–such as drug and alcohol use, and risky sexual behaviors: “Dozens of studies on the effects of increasing sleep by delaying school start times—a move endorsed by bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics—suggest that many of these problems, including risky behaviors, improve when schools start later.” But even if you’re lucky enough to live in such a district, that that still doesn’t mean your child is getting enough sleep…they may just be staying up later. Many of us are worried about the late night Netflix binging, the social media surfing, and the general tendency of teens to stay up too late. And there’s reason to worry! This article on sleep-deprived teens (those who don’t get the recommended 8-10 hours), states that “researchers found that adolescents who were short weekday and short weekend sleepers (i.e., those who consistently did not get enough sleep) were nearly two times more likely to engage in unsafe sex than those who slept in, on average, an extra 3.5 hours on weekends.” Said the researchers: “Our recommendation is for parents and teens to find a middle ground, which allows for some weekend catch-up sleep, while maintaining some level of consistency in sleep-wake patterns.”
Besides letting them catch up on the weekends, wouldn’t it be better to send your child to school well-rested every day? Why not have some parental backbone, set some bedtime rules, and stick to them. In my home, I’ve for 6 years filled my empty nest with foreign students going to high school in America. This year I have four of them! The international program at the school has rules that I’m expected to enforce as a host parent. One of them is that studying happens in a study area downstairs, and bedrooms are device free. If that seems impossible to imagine implementing without all-out mutity, what about “Devices on the hall table by 10:30.” If you’re tech savvy you can do what my husband did…turn off the wifi at a certain hour at night, and don’t get an unlimited data plan for the cell phone.
If you need fortification to be tough…remember, it’s for their own good!
Boredom can drive a teen to creativity…or to his or her devices for countless hours of mindless (or, worse, mind-polluting) media. Why not post on the refrigerator, or inside of a door, a list of ideas for teens to have on hand to fill their empty summer hours? Here’s a ready list of activities that can be not only fun, but also character-building, or mind-growing!
A while ago, I had a teen living in my home for a few months who engaged in self-harm behavior…in this case, scratching her arms with her fingernails until she bled. She revealed it the first time it happened, and got help from a counselor. But most parents don’t find out as quickly as I did, and most teens hide their behavior.
Who self-harms? The behavior is more common among girls than boys, and among adolescents (17% say they’ve self-harmed at least once) than adults (only 5%). The American Psychological Association says it is “characterized by deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives…. The most frequent sites of self-injury are the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs.” Teens are not seeking attention, but relief from emotional pain, and will hide their injuries…by wearing long sleeves, even in hot weather, for instance. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) has more information about self-harming HERE, and a Psychology Today article discusses it as well, with 10 tips for reducing self injury.
I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.
These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way. Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.
You may remember learning about 4 STDs when you were in high school health class. But did you know that teens today learn about 10-12? There are more than 30 STDs, with new ones being discovered every year. Some cause lifelong pain and/or embarrassment. Some cause death, blindness or death in babies, and other grave consequences. Chlamydia and other STDs that cause pelvic inflammatory disease are the leading preventable cause of infertility, and the biggest preventable reason for cesarean sections is the mother having an STD. So what do we tell our teens? How can we protect them?
One 8th grade boy showed me the condom in his wallet that his mom had given him. But that’s not a solution, since STDs (especially those spread by skin-to-skin contact) can be spread even when wearing condoms. In fact, the CDC says: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infection can occur in male or female genital areas that are covered (protected by the condom) as well as those areas that are not.” HPV is the #1 STD, with 100+ strains leading to genital warts and cervical and oral cancers. It’s incurable.
We at Teen Decision help teens discover that the safest, healthiest choice is to be sexually abstinent. Of course, being abstinent has benefits beyond avoiding STDs and pregnancy…it also helps teens have healthier dating relationships, and even (fuel for another blog) more stable marriages in the future. One girl wrote, after the conclusion of our program: “This program was an amazing experience! I’ve now learned to be more open with my mom about sex, abstinence, and everything else. Before this program, I thought sex was inevitable. Now, I am realizing that saving it…is the best option. I am currently dating a boy that I really like. He is so good to me and always puts me first. I have only been dating him over a month now but last night I talked to him about abstinence and he said that he is willing to wait until marriage (that is if I marry him). It’s really nice to know that I won’t have to worry about STDs, pregnancy, or just not being ready☺”
FACT SHEET ON STDs from the CDC.
A single poor choice…often motivated by a desire to keep or gain a relationship, can lead to the dark, ugly world of “sextortion.” An article on the site HealthDay, recounts the tragic case of a 12-year-old girl who’d lifted her shirt online at the request of someone she’d never met in person (and who turned out to be an adult man). She did not give in to the threat of the exposure of that picture, and the extortionist followed through, with the sexual picture spreading around her school. She was then hounded by that man and others for years, finally committing suicide at 16. The difference between that high-profile story and the reality for most, is that perpetrators usually know the victims.
The health site “HealthDay” defines sextortion as “threatening to share sexually explicit photos without consent if a person doesn’t agree to certain demands, such as sexual favors or money,” and reports that 5 percent of teens have been victims, and another 3 percent have been perpetrators. That may seem like a small number, but that means that in every classroom of teens, across America, 2-3 people have been involved in sextortion. Certain groups are more at risk, according to the article: “Teens who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion…. Fifteen appears to be the most common age to be involved in sextortion, the new study found. One finding parents may find particularly alarming is that teens being victimized by sextortion attempts usually know the person trying to take advantage of them. They may have been a romantic partner or a friend. It’s unusual for someone to be targeted by a stranger, the researchers said.”
Talking to our teens about setting boundaries in relationships and in online interactions is critical to their safety, and specifically addressing sextortion might help our children stay safe when, in a single moment, they might be lured into a lapse of judgment that has years-long consequences. Even if it doesn’t happen to your teen, equipping teens to be wise and watchful can help them know how to help their friends stay safe as well.
I’m in middle schools and high schools almost every week. Just walking the halls, I’m reminded of the jockeying for position that is so much a part of teen social life. But popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, according to research reported on by Mitch Prinstein, PhD., in Psychology Today. Whereas being “popular” in earlier grades is linked to likability, in the teen years, it’s more a measure of status. Prinstein (who studies popularity and wrote a book about it), “adolescent brains start to become really tuned in to who is getting the most attention, who seems most powerful, influential, and who everyone else wants to look at the most.” Those popular kids actually are not very well liked! And years later they even have less positive life outcomes. The message, for those of use who were/are not in the “popular” group, is to be aware of the influence of popular kids…and the possibility of being manipulated by them. Having a few good friends who appreciate us is good enough! For the popular teen, it’s a good idea to do a “check” and see if likability is what’s driving popularity…or some of the darker things mentioned in the article.
Dr. Prinstein wrote “A Letter to Teens about the Science of Popularity” that would be great to pass on to your teen. Even better, read it to your teens out loud, and ask them what they think. It could lead to some great conversation, bonding, and increased understanding of your teen’s heart and the social world he or she inhabits every day.
Are you worried about your child’s grades? Is that the only issue? Perhaps not…
Research shows teen risk behaviors go together, such as drinking and sex, or drugs and poor grades. Parents want their kids to do well in school, so they can go to college or learn a valuable workplace skill. And something tells us more is wrong than meets the eye when our kids turn in poor grades, especially when that hasn’t always been true.
It might be time to turn our attention to that new boyfriend, or girlfriend in your teen’s life. Data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a connection between teen sexual activity and poor grades, according to a fact sheet from the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). According to the sheet findings:
“23% of US high school students with mostly A’s were currently sexually active (had sexual
intercourse with at least one person during the 3 months before the survey), compared to
46% of students with mostly D/F’s.”
Instead of berating your child about slipping grades, maybe have a sit-down with an open ear, and a caring tone, to find out what’s happening with a dating partner. A simple question: “How’s it going lately with Casey?” could open the door to helping your teen think about how a dating relationship (and perhaps physical intimacy) is affecting them.
One of the most valuable tools I’ve seen in talking to teens about where they are in life now, and where they will end up, is the “Life Hike” from one of the workbooks I mentioned in my last blog. Aspire describes in Chapter 1 on page 8 (LINK), how life is like a series of mountains to climb, with each mountain representing a different age, beginning with 1-15, 15-30 and so on. Can you imagine having a conversation with your teen about transitioning from “dependence” (on you!) and beginning to gain more independence? I wish I’d had this tool to help me talk through this stage of life with my daughters! Take a look at the above link, and perhaps draw out on a piece of paper the 6 “mountains,” asking him or her to put a mark on the spot “where you are now.” Then ask, “How much of your life is behind you, and how much is ahead?” and “Which mountain would you say represents the most important period of time for you to be thinking about now, and why?”Where they are now is at the precipice of young adulthood…where they will be increasingly responsible for these decisions. This activity can be done to help a young person realize that all of these critical decisions are still ahead, and while the past is important, it’s past! The decisions he or she will face in these next few years have the power to set the course for the rest of life…including those goals we talked about last week that they might have for themselves!