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To Help Prevent Dating Violence, Talk to Your Teens

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2008, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Nearly 2 million high school girls have been sexually or physically abused by a dating partner at one time or another.  Even with alarming numbers like these, parents might not believe it could ever happen to their son or daughter. 

Heidi Sallee, M.D., a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, says parents need to be vigilant. A little love and caring can go a long way toward encouraging your child to develop healthy relationships.

“Dating violence is present in every segment of our population,” Dr. Sallee says.  “Your background, where you live, your economic status and your race mean nothing. In your neighborhood, a teen is being abused by their partner.  It’s alarming.”

A recent study published by the Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal indicates that nearly 18 percent of high school girls reported being forced into sexual activity, and the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports that among 8th and 9th graders, 25 percent have been victims of dating violence, which includes physical abuse and date rape.

As teens begin dating, they copy the behaviors of those around them.  If a parent is violent, there’s a greater chance their children will become abusive as well. 

Dr. Sallee says teen dating violence can be reduced if parents play a meaningful role in their children’s lives.  This includes talking to your child often about their day-to-day life and keeping an eye on their social circle.  Parents also need to set a good example. 

“Kids need to know what a healthy relationship looks like,” Dr. Sallee says.  “If parents talk about the characteristics of a healthy relationship -- mutual respect, love and fairness -- there’s a greater chance that their children will engage in meaningful and rewarding relationships.” 

In addition to physical violence, dating abuse can take the form of verbal, economic or even religious abuse.  When someone controls your financial decisions and behaviors without your consent, it is considered financial abuse. Examples include forcing someone to work or not work, taking someone a paycheck, or expecting unrealistic gifts.  Religious abuse occurs when one partner tries to control the religious beliefs or practices of the other.

Young women ages 16 -24 are especially at risk of being victimized, because this period in their lives is often characterized by struggles with self-awareness and confidence issues. 

“Because these girls are just entering the world of relationships, they don’t know the abuse is wrong,” Dr. Sallee says.  “Unfortunately, this sets a precedent for future relationships.  Parents must intervene early on to educate their kids on healthy relationships.”

Whether your son or daughter is just beginning to date or they’ve been involved in relationships for some time, it’s important for parents to know their kids’ friends.  Get to know their boyfriend or girlfriend, and find out where they are spending time together.  Teen dating abuse often takes place in the home of a dating partner, so encourage your child to go out in groups with other friends. 

Children in abusive relationships often show signs that parents should address:

  • A sudden lack of interest in previously important hobbies or sports
  • Constant worry about being available for a partner’s call, text or e-mail
  • Withdrawal from long-time friends to spend more time with their dating partner

If you suspect that someone you know is a victim of dating violence,, an organization of teens united against dating violence, offers the following advice for helping those caught in abusive relationships:

  • Offer your unconditional support
  • Draw attention to the victim’s positive qualities
  • Listen, don’t judge
  • Build a support group of parents, teachers and friends

“You can prevent your child from becoming a victim simply by being present in their life,” Dr. Sallee says.  “Talk to them often and be available when they want to talk with you. Let them know how much you care about them and that you’re always willing to listen.”


Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

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