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?
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.
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.
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.
We can see in retrospect that the decisions we made as teens and twenty-somethings set the course for the rest of our lives, but if the teens under your care are like many young people, they are less focused on direction in life than what’s for dinner, who asked who to homecoming, and making the next kill in Fortnight before getting down to homework.
Do you know what your child would say if asked about goals in life? If you find yourself using the line: “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college” it’s time to rethink your strategy. Do we really thing kids can’t wait to finish high school, just so they can go to college for 4 or more years? No…college is a means to the other goals they have: A good job, a house, travel…and yes, marriage and family. So HOW can we help them put a name to their goals, and use those goals to drive the decisions they make today?
The first step, is to help your child identify the things that are important to them…put a name to it! Take one of the spokes on this life “wheel” (LINK) and talk about it at the dinner table some night…and keep going until you’ve talked about them all. Then, once important goals are identified and written down, talk through the HOW of achieving those goals. Next, identify the roadblocks they might encounter, or create by their lack of planning or poor decisions.
Teen Decision and other organizations are part of the effort to get teens to consider how relationship choices now can affect teens today AND tomorrow. Over 15,000 Illinois students this year have benefited from a state-funded workbook based program (A&M Partnership) teaching abstinence from a medically accurate, well-reasoned perspective. The very first chapter in each workbook talks about goal-setting. The entire first chapter of Navigator (LINK) has great resources if you want to take a page or two to help you talk through goals in life with your child. In the next blog posts, I’ll be taking some other tips and ideas from these workbooks to help you help your teen on the path to maturity.
A couple of years ago, a student in an all-girl classroom I was speaking to shared that boys were grabbing their butts during passing periods. A show of hands indicated 29 out of 30 had experienced this! After hearing from them that if they protested “it would get worse,” I spoke to them clearly about what they were allowing, and why they should stand up to it, then put them in groups and tasked them with deciding what to do the next time it happened. One girl wrote me afterwards that the next time it happened, she slapped the guy. I’m not sure I intended to incent violence, but it WAS assault (let’s be clear!), and she finally treated it as such. She said she was treated with respect after that. Every year since, as I kept hammering home that “your body belongs to YOU,” the numbers came down…and this year only 3 in a class of 30 had been groped! It makes a difference when we talk to our teens and prepare them to stand up to sexual harassment. This is just one of the things Teen Decision does, as we talk to teens about sex, and dating.
According to a Washington Post article, in a national study on sexual harassment, “87 percent of respondents [ages 18-24] reported they had been the victim of at least one form of sexual harassment,” and “72 percent of men and 80 percent of women reported that they never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.” Parents, we have to do better! We’ve all seen the news about politicians and Hollywood celebrities getting away with sexual misbehavior for decades. Now is a great time to take advantage of the public conversation, and expose these boorish (often criminal) behaviors for what they are. The Post article has GREAT suggestions for how to talk to your teen. Take a moment to read the article, and have that conversation…NOW.
If you like the work Teen Decision does, and how we help boys AND girls advocate for themselves and stand strong for their right to “SAY NO” to sex…consider a donation! If you’re on our blog page now, look for the green “Donate” button. Or go to teendecision.org. People like you, who love and care about teens, are the ones who keep us going, and we need your help to finish 2017, as we stay on track to serve 8,000 students this school year.
When our Teen Decision program comes to a school, teens often are often either nervous, or skeptical about our “sex ed” program. I once had someone write me that they’d expected the presenter (me) to be an “old lady with warts” but was pleasantly surprised to find our program fun, informative, and relevant to teens’ real lives. While we do discuss the benefits of abstinence (and the risks of sexual activity), we spend FAR more time talking about relationships, knowing that teaching them how to recognize and have healthy relationships is far more effective in helping teens make good choices about sex than scaring them about teen pregnancy and STDs…although there is a place for healthy fear about these very possible consequences! And you know what? That’s what teens really want to talk about as well…relationships…love! Now that it’s summer, love (or infatuation more likely) may even be blooming for the teen in your home! I found this article about talking to teens about love, and I thought it could help you to talk with the teen in your life about what love is, and how to learn how to BE a healthy person in a healthy relationship. I particularly liked one point the author made, that we can help any young person recognize that a good dating partner is someone who has demonstrated the qualities of a good friend:
What about a younger child who isn’t necessarily old enough for a romantic relationship? Is there a way you could ease into the topic?
The basics, like how to choose a friend. The same skills that kids would use to choose a friend — whether it’s generosity or kindness or loyalty or empathy — those are the same traits they’re going to be looking for later in a relationship. So parents can help guide kids, and they can lead that discussion at home.
I do a lot of work in the younger grades with friendship skills: reciprocity, reflective listening, turn-taking, sharing. All of these very basic skills that you need to teach young kids so that later on, they not only have the skills to maintain a healthy relationship, they’ll know how to identify a healthy relationship, too.
With the arrival in theaters this month of Fifty Shades Darker, it’s time to get a sensible look at the messages of this book and movie series. With regard to teens, there’s nothing gray about this…it’s pretty black and white. Dr. Miriam Grossman wrote about the messages in this movie HERE, but I want to concentrate on a particularly persistent myth that I see not just in this movie series, but in the psyches of too many girls (and grown women). Dr. Grossman states the myth this way: “Christian’s emotional problems are cured by Anastasia’s love.” Haven’t we all seen the “bad boy” syndrome? I’ve been asked by decent, honorable, respectful guys: “Why do the girls seem to go for the bad boys?” I have two theories. One is that they are so deeply bonded to the guy (usually because they’ve gone pretty far sexually), that they ignore/excuse/tolerate what they would normally recognize as abominable behavior and an unhealthy relationship. It’s not glamorous, loving or healthy to accept abuse (emotional and/or physical), humiliation, manipulation, control or force. My second theory is that there is a powerful fantasy in thinking that MY love, MY attractiveness (a bit of narcissism?) can cure a seriously sick and unhealthy person. How many times have you (or your teen) talked yourself blue in the face trying to help someone see that their partner is a jerk, only to watch the train hurtle toward the inevitable crash. As Grossman points out: “Only in a movie. In the real world, Christian wouldn’t change to any significant degree.” And further, “In the real world, this story would end badly, with Christian in jail, and Ana in a shelter – or morgue. Or maybe Christian would continue beating Ana, and she’d stay and suffer. Either way, their lives would most definitely not be a fairy tale.” Please discuss these ideas with your sons and daughters, so they are reminded that unhealthy people make for unhealthy relationships, and your child deserves to be treated with caring, respect, empathy, and consideration. Toxic relationships are not handcuffs that are part of sex play like in the Fifty Shades story, they are chains and bonds that can drag a person under for years, even decades.
Much of the gossip in the hallways of the middle and high schools Teen Decision serves is about who is dating whom, and which couple just broke up (usually with a lot of drama). It’s “sweet” and “romantic” in the beginning, sure. But…give it a few weeks or months, some significant pain and heartache, and one or both decides it wasn’t love after all. One teacher who has Teen Decision come speak to her students said: “Most kids are shocked when they find out that their high school sweetheart probably won’t be their forever.”
So what WAS it then? Those feelings were so REAL!
As we help our children process the intense feelings that are sure to come with romantic attraction and attachment, it would serve them well if we also helped them understand the “chemistry” of love.
I was sent this fantastic video by a representative of the DuPage County Health Department who has seen the Teen Decision program. It talks about the “chemistry” of love, and the need to avoid making any premature decisions that commit more of you, your time or your resources, when in that initial (and transitory) state we might more accurately call infatuation. While targeted to young adults, it would make an interesting conversation to watch this with your teen, especially in regard to how physical touch and quick commitment can lead to not just heartache, but lasting consequences…like teen pregnancy and STDs. A few questions to ask after watching the video together might be:
This video talks about young adults. What do TEENS do that commit themselves to each other in a way that is hard to get out of later?
How do teens say they “know” they are in love? Are those things a proof that love is real?
Do you know someone who is or was in an unhealthy relationship, and didn’t even recognize it? Why did they stay in the relationship so long?
If only 2-3% of married people started as high school sweethearts, most couples who thought they were in love, were not. What do you think real love looks like, long term?
I remember vividly two letters I received from students last year recounting the effects of sexual abuse in dating relationships. In one case, a girl was experiencing constant nightmares a full two years after experiencing sexual force in a relationship with her 8th grade boyfriend. The other was depressed and cutting, again years after sexual abuse in a middle school relationship. But sexual abuse doesn’t just happen in the context of romantic dating relationships. It may happen at the hands of a “trusted” family friend, neighbor, or family member. We all hate to think it could happen, and parents may be the ones most likely to think “I would know if my child had been abused.” However, if some estimates are true that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been abused in some way sexually before the age of 18, then many more of us have children who have experienced abuse than we think. Why don’t our children tell us? According to an article about child sexual abuse, children don’t tell because of…
Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family)
Fear of being removed from the home
Fear of not being believed
Shame or guilt
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress says: “If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of that perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.”
Do your children know that they can talk to you? That you will listen? Maybe it’s time to have a conversation. Start with reading this article, and when you have that conversation, be sure to let your children know YOU can be trusted to listen and understand, and that nothing that might have happened to them is their fault.
In addition, here are some local resources…hotlines you or your child can call.
YWCA West Suburban Center. Glen Ellyn. Hotline: (630) 971-3927
Community Crisis Center. Elgin. Hotline: (847) 697-2380