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Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D. Headshot

Having "The Talk" With Your Kids

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Have you had "the talk" with your children? If this question instantly makes you think of the classic birds-and-bees chat, I was actually talking about the healthy relationship chat.

While many parents want their children to be safe, many don't even think about addressing what it means to be in a healthy or safe relationship with their kids. Instead, the conversation usually slants toward sex.

In fact, one survey found that although three in four parents said they had a conversation with their teenager about what it means to be in a healthy relationship, 74 percent of sons and 66 percent of daughters said they have NOT had such a conversation with their parents.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and, as a physician who specializes in care for adolescents, a researcher on teen dating abuse, and a parent of a teen, I want to encourage parents to better educate their daughters and sons about what it means to be in a healthy relationship and how to recognize the signs of an unhealthy relationship and get help.

Teen dating violence, also called adolescent relationship abuse, is defined as a pattern of physically, sexually, verbally, or emotionally abusive actions committed by a partner to establish control over the other. The abusive behavior may occur in a dating or similarly defined relationship where one or both persons are a minor. According to Liz Claiborne Inc. and Futures Without Violence, nearly one in three teens who have been in relationships has experienced dating violence or abuse.

The warning signs parents should keep an eye out for include:

• No longer hanging out with his/her circle of friends
• Sudden changes in clothing or appearance
• Distracted or constantly checking cell phone
• Withdrawn, quieter than usual
• Making excuses for their boyfriend or girlfriend
• Unexplained scratches or bruises
• Showering immediately after getting home

A key characteristic of unhealthy and abusive relationships is the control that the abusive partner seeks to maintain in the relationship. This ranges from telling someone what to wear and where they can go to sexual coercion and forcing someone to get pregnant. Unfortunately, adolescents may confuse this possessive behavior as a sign of love, thinking that the abuser is only acting this way because he or she is committed to the relationship.

So what can a parent do to get in front of the issue and proactively address it with their children before it becomes a serious problem?

Regardless of whether your child is in a relationship, sit down with them and talk about what constitutes a healthy, respectful relationship early on. This can include highlighting examples from your personal relationships or calling out specifics, such as:

• Being considerate of the other person's feelings and opinions
• Trusting each other
• Taking an interest in your hobbies and providing support and encouragement to pursue these personal interests
• Being respectful of sexual limits and not pressuring you to go further
• Liking you for who you are and not asking you to change

If you have teenage boys, it's especially important to reinforce the importance of respecting females and not forcing their dates to go further sexually than what they are comfortable with. Along the same lines, it's important to talk about positive, non-violent ways to deal with anger and make sure you are setting good examples at home that your son can follow.

Above all else, make sure your child knows that you are there to help, not to judge. And if your teenager does not want to talk with you, help them find another trusted person to talk with such as their pediatrician, school counselor or clinic provider. There are many resources available and your children should never feel alone or feel they are to blame if they are in an abusive relationship.

To that end, I recently joined with INOBTR ("I Know Better"), a non-profit organization focused on educating kids through public awareness to keep them safe, and the California Adolescent Health Collaborative, a public-private statewide coalition of individuals and organizations that works to increase understanding and support of adolescent health and well-being, to launch a campaign in the Bay Area to raise awareness of teen dating violence. The campaign is funded through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. As part of the campaign, educational public service ads are running on San Francisco MUNI bus lines, BART trains and station platforms, AC Transit buses and at the Westfield San Francisco Center Mall and local movie theaters to raise awareness of the issue and let teens know that there ways for them to get help.

Here are additional resources to help you engage with your children about this topic:

A Parent's Guide to Teen Dating Violence: Questions to Start the Conversation
A Parent's Handbook: How To Talk To Your Children About Developing Healthy Relationships
Start Strong Resources for Parents
Project Youth Safety