10/09/2013 01:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

You Talk to Your Kids About Safe Sex... What About Safe Relationships?

As the parent of a teenager myself, I know how important it is to talk about safe sex, but what about safe relationships? October is domestic violence awareness month, and while February is officially teen dating violence awareness month, we should not wait for a specific month to have this conversation with our kids. We should be having it routinely! As an ER doctor, I can tell you teen dating violence is a bigger problem than you might realize. Approximately one in five female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner.

According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, young women ages 16-24 are the most vulnerable age group. Despite almost two-thirds of teens who have been in a relationship admitting they know a friend in an abusive relationship, less than half of parents admit they have spoken to their children about dating violence and healthy relationships.

And if you think this could not happen to your daughter, your sister or your friend, think again. No city, state nor family is immune. Tragically, a quick Internet search of teens killed by intimate partners in the last six months immediately brings up the names of these beautiful young women: Julianne Siller of Skippack Township, Penn., Erin Schneider of Columbia, Ill. and Jacqueline Flores of Harvard, Ill.

Dating violence, like all domestic violence, crosses all socioeconomic and racial groups. It is about using violence to obtain power and control over the relationship and the victim. Commonly ,the violence escalates when the abusive partner starts to lose control. That means the most dangerous time in these relationships is when the abused victim finally tries to end the relationship and breakup. That is when the stalking and murders occur.

Teens and young adults are probably more vulnerable to violent relationships because of their inexperience, as well as their peer pressure to be in relationships. Often these young women have unrealistic romanticized views of love. They might feel responsible (like many victims) for the abuse and problems in their relationship. They often mistake the critical warning signs of an abusive relationship, things such as obsessive jealousy or possessiveness, as romantic gestures or a "sign of how much he must love me." Conversely, young men might feel pressure to control and be aggressive with their partners as a sign of masculinity. They also might feel entitled to intimacy in their relationships and demand it both verbally and physically. Let them know love should not hurt!

Some important red flags that might indicate your child could be involved in an abusive relationship:

• Depression and mood swings
• Truancy and problems in school
• Isolation from friends and family
• Use of drugs and alcohol as well as any physical signs of injury.

There are also some clues that might indicate your child is becoming abusive:

• Extreme jealousy and controlling behavior
• Explosive angry abusive verbal outbursts with use of force in an argument
• Blames others for problems
• Threatens violence

Many parents of children I have treated or spoken with told me they wish they knew these subtle warning signs and red flags before it was too late. We need to pay attention and stay involved in our children's lives. Early adolescence is the critical juncture to talk to our children about what constitutes a healthy relationship. If you are worried about your teen talk, with their health care professional who can then put you in touch with local agencies that deal with partner and family violence.

We also need to demand that our schools include this in their health curriculum with other important topics such a bullying. We need to educate our communities to the dangers of teen dating violence.

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) has great campaigns available to start a conversation with our kids and their schools on preventing teen violence and promoting healthy relationships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has many online resources for educators, parents and their kids to help prevent teen dating violence.

Don't be afraid to ask your child and talk about this! You may not think they listening... but they are. Working together we can break the cycle of violence.

For more on Dr. Leigh go to or follow me on twitter @doctor_leigh or like my page facebook

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text "loveis" to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.