“If you have a teen who is experiencing emotional, psychological or any kind of abuse, the best thing you can do as a parent is to show support. Create a comfort zone of communication and be willing to listen without judgement. If the situation seems serious, get your teen the professional help they need. Some situations are beyond a parents ability.”
Do’s and don’ts for talking to teens about abuse
When I was a therapist, most of my education about rape and violence focused on three areas: statutory rape – age-defined adult-child sexual relations; domestic violence in marital adult relationships; and violence from strangers – trauma from muggings or sexual assault. A fourth area, teen-on-teen violence, was a rarer topic.
Linda Culbreth’s book, How to Talk to your Teen about Date Abuse B/4 Friday Night, breaks open this challenging topic with the following facts:
“38% of date rape victims are young women between the ages of 14-17.”
“70% of pregnant teenagers are abused by their partners.”
“1 out of every three females will be abused at the hands of their date/mate.”
If you’re a parent or adult friend to a teen, you’ll want to know how to approach the topic of teen on teen violence. One thing you can do is talk with your teen about different kinds of abuse. Most abuse falls into four categories:
Emotional: includes anything that is designed to lower self-esteem. Some signs of emotional abuse include name-calling, cursing, criticizing and can often start with something as simple as walking ahead instead of alongside someone.
Psychological: includes anything that makes you feel afraid, which causes isolation, or even when a teen partner makes threats that they may or may not intend to carry out.
Physical: includes bodily pain or harm. That might mean shoving, punching, pushing, kicking, biting, scratching, burning or pinching.
Sexual: includes advances that are not welcome or feel wrong or uncomfortable. That might mean when a partner ignores you when you say, “No,” or forces you to do something sexual that you do not want to do. One therapy website points out, “Male or female, hetero or gay couple, when one member of a couple takes advantage of the other and demands, insists on, and forces sex, it has an ugly name. Rape.”
If you have a teen in your life, you can offer guidance. Here are some Dos and Don’ts for adults in conversations with teens:
- Define what it means to have boundaries and to respect boundaries. Limit-setting and limit-respecting are two sides to an important topic. Teach your teen to do both.
- Explore the four kinds of teen on teen abuse. Discuss how emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse show up, even in young relationships.
- Ask your teen about any experiences of abuse. Be willing to ask this hard question. “Have you ever experienced anything like that? How so?”
- Discuss the importance of consent. We’ve all heard the saying, “No means no,” but take it a step further, and talk about the importance of getting a clear “Yes,” indicating full approval from your partner before continuing with any kind of sexual behavior. Review the consequences of sex: emotional, psychological and how it can impact young relationships.
- Educate your teen about what acquaintance rape means. In the article, “Talking To Your Teens About Acquaintance Rape,” Marie Hartwell-Walker – psychologist and marriage and family counselor – explains, “Your kids may think that only being abducted by a stranger and being abused is rape. Educate them about the hard fact that they are more likely to be victimized by someone they know and it can be by either gender. Make sure your children understand that they have a right to say no even to people they know and care about and who they believe love them.”
- Don’t minimize the experience of any kind of abuse. Often, an adult will try to comfort a teen by offering the wrong kind of reassurance. For example, never make comments such as, “It could have been worse,” or “At least she didn’t do xyz to you.” Instead, validate the pain of the experience.
- Don’t push a victim of abuse to describe every detail of the abuse. If you’re encouraging someone whose boundaries have been violated to let you violate another boundary by pressuring them to spell out every moment of the abuse, you’re not being respectful and will only make the teen feel more violated.
- Don’t avoid discussing issues that the teen wants to bring up. If you feel yourself steering away from a loaded topic, remind yourself that it’s important to make room for the teen to talk about any aspect of an abusive relationship. Your avoidance could keep you from offering real help.
- Don’t blame the victim. On the website NoBullying.com, the article, “The Dynamics of Teen Rape” outlines what often happens: “Girls who are victims are treated as receiving some kind of just dessert because they allowed themselves to get into the situation in the first place. If they had stayed conservative, not gone to parties, not gotten drunk, or not worn provocative clothes, the attack wouldn’t have happened.” The article explains, “This double-standard has existed for decades, and it’s the reason why teen rapists can get away with crimes that as adults they would be put in jail for five to ten years.”
- Don’t talk only about victimhood, or make the mistake of assuming your teen could not possibly be the perpetrator. Hartwell-Walker says, “Remind them that they never want to fall into being a victimizer either. Make it clear that you expect them to respect their sexual partners, to make sure they have genuine consent, and to practice safe sex.” She adds: “Review that it’s not okay for girls or boys to manipulate others into being more physically intimate than they want to be or to question their decision. Being a respectful and loving partner means taking ‘no’ for an answer—no matter what.”
Start the conversation, keep the conversation open and ongoing, and be willing to rewire your own thinking about teen on teen violence. For more information, start here: breakthecycle.org