How young is too young to start talking to my child about dating?
A new study conducted with more 1,400 7th-graders showed that, in this robust sample, an alarmingly high number of pre-teens are not only dating, but experiencing abusive relationships and sexual harassment.
More than 75 percent reported they had been in dating relationships. Nearly one in six had experienced physical dating violence and more than half had experienced sexual harassment.
Until now, there has been very little research on this age group and, though not nationally representative, this study is one of the few and largest in-depth studies conducted on this topic to date. The implications of these findings for parents are serious and reinforce that waiting until high school to talk about dating is too late. Middle school provides a critical window of opportunity to teach children about healthy relationships and prevent dating violence before it starts.
What can parents do? Take advantage of this window of time. Educate yourself on the warning signs of teen dating abuse and learn how to start conversations with pre-teens about what behaviors should never be tolerated in a dating relationship.
Be on the watch for the subtle signs of an abusive relationship, and notice if your pre-teen:
- Receives excessive text messaging, phone calling, emailing or visiting with boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Stops hanging out with friends or participating in family activities.
- Starts having declining grades or missing school.
- Seems afraid to disagree with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend; always does what partner wants
- · Has injuries he/she tries to cover up or can’t explain
If any of the above are correct, your child may be in an unhealthy relationship.
There was good news from the study as well. Nearly three-quarters of the students in the sample said they sometimes or often talk to their parents about dating and relationships. Keeping this communication open and active is key to ensuring your pre-teen or teen sets healthy boundaries in relationships.
Here are some tips:
- Talk to your children about peer pressure both online and off, before they are even in a relationship.
- Discuss what it means to be a good friend, laying a foundation for healthy romantic relationships later in life.
- Encourage and model healthy and safe relationships.
- Use popular culture and current events to make teachable moments with your children. Ask them what they think about relationship behaviors that they see, and dialogue about what’s appropriate and what’s not.
- · Discuss what a healthy relationship looks like, feels like, and sounds like.
These findings come from an evaluation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national program, Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships, the largest initiative ever funded to prevent dating abuse among 11-14 year olds in 11 different communities across the U.S. To learn more about how to start conversations with your child, and increase your knowledge about teen dating abuse visit www.startstrongparents.org, for free parent resources available in English and Spanish.