Spring 2011
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Parents: Start Relating Before Your Teen Starts Dating

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By Barbara Ball, PhD, Start Strong Austin Project Director, SafePlace

Welcome to one of the most challenging phases of parenting – adolescence. In all likelihood, your teen is seeking more independence, spending more time with peers and may even be beginning to date. While it may seem easier to let your preteen shake you loose, hang on. They really do need you.

While one in five high school students experience dating violence, parents are largely unaware of the prevalence of abuse in teens' lives. As a parent, you play a critical role in teaching your child the importance of respect, how to make responsible decisions and how to say "no" to unwanted behaviors in a relationship.

You are probably hoping, especially if your preteen or young teen isn't "dating" yet, that you have a few more years before you need to worry about your child's relationships. The truth is, however, the best time to prepare your son or daughter to develop healthy relationships is before dating begins. You'll want to be sure you do your part to help your child understand what a healthy relationship feels like and looks like.

One of the most effective ways of teaching your child about healthy relationships is to model positive qualities in your own relationships – including the one you have with your young teen.

  • Listen to your child and show them that you value what they have to say.
  • Ask them some of the questions below to invite them to talk to you; listen to their answers and guide them to define what a healthy relationship looks like to him or her.
  • Encourage debate – this helps your child come to his or her own understanding.

A healthy relationship has:

Respect. Do your friends accept you for who you are? No one should pressure you into doing things that make you uncomfortable – such as smoking, drinking, drugs, taking or sending embarrassing or hurtful pictures or texts, or unwanted physical contact.

Safety. Do you feel emotionally and physically safe in all of your relationships? Emotional safety means you feel comfortable being you without fear of being put down. Physical safety means you are not being hurt or intimidated or pressured into unwanted physical contact.

Fairness and Equality. Do you have an equal say in your friendships and relationships? From the activities you do together to the friends you hang out with, you should have an equal say in all of your relationships.

Acceptance. Do your friends or your boyfriend/girlfriend accept you for who you really are? You shouldn't have to change who you are or compromise your beliefs to make someone like you.

Honesty and Trust. Are you and your friends honest with each other? Honesty builds trust. You can't have a healthy relationship without trust. If you have ever caught a friend in a lie, you know that it takes time to rebuild your trust.

Good Communication. Do you talk face-to-face (not just text) with your friends or your girlfriend/boyfriend about your feelings? You and your friends should listen to one another and hear one another out.

Respectful Disagreements. In every relationship you have, you should respect each other as individuals and understand that sometimes there will be differences of opinion.

Enjoy Being Together. Do you laugh and have fun and are you comfortable with your friends, girlfriend or boyfriend? While relationships aren't perfect all the time, you should always feel comfortable in your relationships.

Hang on to your teen and know the healthy relationship you have with your child today will teach them how to build their own healthy relationships in the future. SafePlace and Start StrongAustin are hereto help you through this challenging process. The SafePlace Expect Respect Program is partnering with AISD, Dell Children's Medical Center and community leaders to help young teens learn the skills for respectful and safe relationships through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationship Initiative.

If you need more information about counseling, school-based support groups, parent workshops or to find resources and tools for talking to your teen about healthy relationships, find information at www.SafePlace.org/ExpectRespect, e-mail ExpectRespect@SafePlace.org or call the SafePlace 24-hour hotline at (512) 267-7233.

Start Strong has many exciting opportunities for Austin-area youth to get involved in leadership groups. Teens work in different media, including theater, art and digital media, to educate their peers about healthy relationships and how to prevent harassment, cyberbullying and dating violence. Check out www.startstrongaustin.org and learn how your teen can get involved.

Relating to teens
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Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.