As youth educators for the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program of Family Crisis Services, we spend our time talking to students from middle school through college about dating abuse. We know that students’ levels of maturity, experience, knowledge and curiosity vary greatly, even among young people who are the same age.

We also know that parents and guardians may have a difficult broaching sensitive topics surrounding dating and abuse. It’s hard enough getting young people to open up about relationships, much less abuse they or their friends might be experiencing.

So in recognition of February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we wanted to offer some tips for doing just that.

First, our definition of dating violence is when one partner in a relationship uses abusive tactics to gain power and maintain control over their partner. For example, one partner might:

• Call the other person names.

• Frequently text, call or use social media to check in on the other.

• Use jealousy to limit who the other can spend time with.

• Emotionally blackmail the other (“If you really loved me, then you would …”).

• Minimize, deny or blame any wrongdoing on the other.

• Yell at the other or break things when angry.

Controlling partners are manipulative; they may leverage feelings of both fear and love to control a partner, and they are not likely to do so around others. As such, parents and guardians may not be witness to any of the abuse. Instead, here are some red flags to keep an eye out for in your child:

• They spend less time with family or friends.

• They make excuses for their partner.

• They think and act as if they are “walking on eggshells.”

• They have lower self-esteem.

• They gain or lose weight rapidly, or change their appearance dramatically.

• They wear clothing that covers up signs of physical abuse.

One out of three teen relationships will have some element of abuse present. If you believe that your child may be experiencing abuse, here are some ways you can be helpful:

• Take young people’s relationships seriously. It is easy for parents to say, “It’s just puppy love” or “It’s not that bad,” but minimizing your child’s feelings will only show that you do not understand what they are going through.

• Open things up with a simple question: “How was your day? How are things going with So-and-so?” Give them the space to speak their piece, knowing that they might not be ready to talk about it. If they aren’t ready to talk about it, then …

• Establish yourself as an open ear. “If you ever want to talk about this, I’m here for you” is a great way to show that you will support your child when they are ready to receive that support. If they are ready to talk, then …

• Ask honest, judgment-free questions. “Have you ever felt scared of them?” “What happens if you don’t respond to a text right away?” This will give them a chance to say what’s concerning them, and it will give you a better understanding of what your child is experiencing.

• Give honest, judgment-free answers. Being able to share parts of your own dating history in an authentic way is powerful.

• Listen with your full attention. If you’ve got one eye on dinner and the other on your phone, it is not a good time to try to get at what’s going on with your loved one.

• Validate your child’s feelings while expressing your concern for the situation. “I know you love So-and-so, but it makes me worried when I see/hear … .”

Dating abuse is a tough subject to talk about, but luckily, you don’t have to go through it alone. We encourage you to reach out for extra support as needed.

Most schools have counselors or social workers who can be allies in this situation. Additionally, the local domestic violence resource center, Family Crisis Services, provides a 24/7/365 confidential hotline that is available for friends and relatives of victims of abuse. We can discuss different ways to support you and your young person. Dating abuse is one of those issues it takes a community to solve.

You do not have to be a cape-wearing Superparent who swoops in and fixes every relationship. If they know they can come to you with anything, if they know you will listen to their concerns and if they know you will support them without judgment, you have created a safe place for real conversation to occur. That is the first step to helping them.

Jenna Rodrigues and Dan Kipp are youth dating violence educators at the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, part of Portland-based Family Crisis Services. The confidential hotline mentioned in the column is 1-800-537-6066.

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