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Teens and young adults can be especially vulnerable to dating violence. Unlike most of their older counterparts, they’re still new to the world of romantic relationships and may not yet have a clear understanding of their own boundaries and what they should accept from a partner.
“Red flags in relationships come in many forms,” explains Jillian Amodio, MSW and founder of Moms For Mental Health. And while they don’t always mean that a relationship is doomed, she explains that they are very important to address. “Common red flags include love bombing, abuse of any kind, obsession, jealousy, pressure, lying, and manipulation.”
Here are five things you should talk to your kids about before they start dating — and some tips about what you should do if you and your teen are already seeing these signs.
The phrase love bombing has become a buzzword in recent years but it’s actually a typical part of a pattern of abuse, according to Amodio. “If relationships are characterized by really high highs and really low lows, that’s a sign of a pattern you don’t want to be caught in,” she says, adding that while we may all have good days and bad days, generally relationships should feel stable, predictable, and maintain a firm sense of mutual respect.
“If a partner is easily angered or triggered, regularly behaves in abusive or erratic ways, or engages in behavior that is manipulative and disrespectful, only to be followed by lavish displays of affection, professions of love, profuse apologies, and gifts that’s called love bombing.”
Early days of infatuation can come across as endearing, especially when they’re accompanied by those tell-tale butterflies, but they can also quickly turn into an obsession if not kept in check. “Obsession is sometimes cleverly disguised as immense love and flattery, but if it feels like too much, it probably is,” Amodio explains.
Teens experiencing this may feel like they’re under surveillance or notice that their partner seems to show up everywhere they go. Obsessive tendencies can also present in the way they communicate and may look like frequent calls or texts.
“Relationships should be built on trust, and each person in the relationship should also feel like they have the freedom to exist as an individual as well,” she continues. If you see a partner who is engaging in obsessive behaviors, even if your child is the one doing it, it may be an indication that they won’t be able to pull back enough from their obsession to respect boundaries.
Amodio mentioned that some red flags could be an indication of immaturity, and jealousy seems to be one of them. “Sometimes this can be managed with open communication, and sometimes it is remedied with maturity, however, jealousy can quickly become a big problem,” she says, adding that mutual trust and respect are bedrocks when it comes to the foundation of a healthy relationship at any age.
Being pressured to do things they don’t want to
No one should never feel pressured to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, and that’s especially true when it comes to romantic partners. “This can be anything from holding hands and kissing, to saying I love you, having sex, going to someone’s house, attending a party, or engaging in risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use,” Amodio explains. Remind your teen, “You have the right to say no to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, and your voice should be respected without pushback. A partner should never try to guilt, coerce, shame, force, pressure, or convince you to do something that you are not ready for, do not like, or that makes you uncomfortable in any way.”
She adds that teens should also be reminded that their answer is allowed to change. “If you say yes to something once, twice, or a thousand times, and then decide that you don’t want to do that anymore, you have every right to change your mind,” she says.
Preventing them from having their own interests
Healthy relationships are also those in which each partner encourages the other to pursue their own interests, passions, and goals, which is why Amodio says this can be a major red flag with younger relationships. “Your teen should not be discouraged from pursuing dreams (such as attending a different school than your partner), hobbies, or interests just because their partner doesn’t like them or doesn’t want them to.”
What to do if you see worrying signs in your teen
The first thing you should remember is that there’s no need to panic. “Your teen must know that you will be a safe, supportive refuge when they are ready to confide in you and seek help,” explains Melissa Hannan, associate marriage and family therapist. “If they do not trust that you can do this for them, they may feel their only option is to try to fix their problems on their own, leading to worse and worse decisions.”
Even when you’ve had conversations about red flags and healthy relationships, your teen may still have a hard time managing their social experiences because their brains are still developing. “They will not have a fully formed prefrontal cortex (the logical, planning part of the brain) until their mid-twenties. As much as they believe they are adults, you as the parent have to remember that they are working with incomplete software that will weigh the scales towards impulsive, emotional decisions.”
The best way to help is to avoid shaming them, and do everything you can to assure your teen that you will not be mad at them or disappointed in them, or will punish them if they come to you about mistakes they made in their relationship. “An abusive partner will likely push your teen’s boundaries, and over time get your teen to engage in questionable activities that the teen will not want to tell you about. This gives the abuser power. The antidote to this power is a teen believing that their parents will prioritize their mental and emotional well-being over the specific actions the teen might have engaged in.”
When to get help
Hannan specializes in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so she has a unique insight into when parents and caregivers need to call in the experts. “Seek professional help from a therapist that specializes in trauma and abusive relationships if you notice a significant change to your teen’s behavior that is sustained for more than a few weeks,” she says, explaining that this could present as lowering self-esteem, dropping grades, and/or withdrawal from friends or family.
“One thing parents can do on their own is to learn about healthy relational boundaries. I highly recommend the book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab,” she says, adding that adults should educate both themselves and their teens on how to set and maintain healthy boundaries. “Good boundary-setting skills and strong, loving families are an abuser’s kryptonite.”
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