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Heidi Sallee, MD

February can be good time for parents to talk with their teenagers about positive dating relationships, especially to help reduce the risk of dating abuse and violence.

Valentine’s Day focuses attention on romance, but teens can sometimes have immature ideas about what makes a healthy relationship, says Heidi Sallee, MD, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis.

The problem is surprisingly common, Dr. Sallee says, as outlined in a landmark study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2008, which found that one in four college women had experienced dating violence.

While studies report a high level of abuse and actual violence, Dr. Sallee says what’s striking is the lack of risk factors that might alert a pediatrician or parent to be concerned. The major risk factor, she continues, simply is being a teen.

“Red flags that we think about in terms of domestic violence, such as poverty or things along those lines, don’t come into play as much with teens. Virtually all teens are vulnerable to the risk of dating violence.”

Dr. Sallee emphasizes that the problem can strike any family. “Despite being educated, being smart and having a supportive family, it’s just very easy for all kids – and not just girls, but even boys – to fall into a relationship that is abusive.”

It’s not surprising, but Dr. Sallee explains that because teens are still gaining life experience, they sometimes have faulty judgment about what makes a healthy dating relationship. Girls, for example, may find it romantic if a new boyfriend is jealous and controlling, but this should be a clear signal of potential danger, Dr. Sallee says.

She continues that peer pressure – not assessment of character – is the overriding factor influencing choice of dating partners. This can lead teens to choose the most popular boy or girl to date, without regard to character.

“Teens look to their peers a lot more than their parents, so dating the right person gives them social status and may impair their view of the relationship because there is gain beyond just the dating relationship itself.”

While girls more often are victims of physical abuse – sometimes starting with control issues with a boyfriend – boys too can be victims, Dr. Sallee continues. She explains that boys can be emotional and even financial victims of a girl dating partner.

“When I’m lecturing medical students, I talk to them about definitions of what is dating violence, and what is intimate partner violence,” Dr. Sallee says.

 “Physical things like bruises are easy to see, but it’s the more subtle things that can be difficult, and that’s sometimes where boys tend to be victims – such as a girlfriend expecting the boy to buy her expensive gifts – things like that.”

What’s a parent to do?

Dr. Sallee suggests staying alert to potential signs of an abusive relationship, such as failing grades, dropping out of activities that the teen previously enjoyed, and of course, any unexplained bruises.

With adolescents and younger teens, Dr. Sallee urges parents to always monitor where their children are and to meet any new dating partner. Dr. Sallee adds that in this wireless age, it’s even harder for parents to keep tabs on teens who may be silently text-messaging or chatting online with a dating partner, but she says parents must try to stay involved.

The best approach, Dr. Sallee continues, is one that is often repeated: Talk to your kids – this Valentine’s month and often.

“Have dinner with your kids,” Dr. Sallee says. “Do it once at week at least.”

“My husband and I talk to our girls about control issues and dating relationships,” she continues. “Our oldest is 14 and our youngest girl is 12, but we’ve talked to them on many occasions over the last five years that it’s never okay for a dating partner to hit you or hurt you; and if that happens, that should be the end of the relationship.”

Dr. Sallee notes that if a parent suspects actual abuse, banning the daughter – or son – from seeing the person may backfire, resulting in secret rendezvous.

Better at this point, she says, to be supportive and to try to guide the youngster in the right direction. “Talk to your teen and be reasonable as much as possible. Say ‘I’m worried and here are the reasons why, and what can we do to help you.’ ”

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