By Katie Hurley, CNN
As a therapist who works with tweens, teens and young adults, I aim to help them understand that love is an essential ingredient for a healthy intimate partner relationship. But so are things such as relational safety, empathy, trust and, most importantly, mutual respect. Healthy relationships grow from a seed of mutual respect.
That’s not necessarily the message young people get from the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial or other high-profile court cases that also play out on social media. The couples therapist who testified in the Depp-Heard trial shared observations about a relationship that included physical and verbal altercations.
Nonetheless, many on the internet declared Depp the clear “winner” before the jury even began deliberations, but the details that emerged combined with the public nature of the case resulted in mixed messages for teens and young adults as they watched it unfold on social media.
One high school girl I spoke to commented that most of her male peers appeared to be celebrating by posting “Justice for Johnny” on their Instagram stories. Another asked for clarification of the term “mutual abuse.” My own teen daughter handed me her phone and asked me to talk her through it, as she did not pay attention to the trial, but some of her friends clearly did.
I worry about the internalized messages that can result from a case that showcased relational toxicity and normalized violence within a relationship. While the case centered around defamation lawsuits, the content shared (and shared and shared) focused on a volatile relationship that was widely sensationalized on social media apps. The nuances of victimization are difficult to ascertain from short clips layered with catchy tunes.
Teen and young adult dating violence is not uncommon. Statistics compiled by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia show that 1 in 3 teens in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. A Children’s Hospital-led study on intimate partner violence showed that victimization began to rise at age 13, showed a sharp increase between the ages of 15 and 17, and continued to rise between 18 and 22.
Teens and young adults need accurate information on developing healthy intimate relationships and how to get help if a relationship turns aggressive or violent. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterizes teen dating violence as an adverse childhood experience that can have short- and long-term consequences, including depression and anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and risk for future relationship problems.
As a therapist, I hear a lot of normalizing of language that disempowers female-identifying and LGBTQIA youth, joking that pushes boundaries and makes youths uncomfortable, peer pressure around sex and intimate relationships, and relational aggression that goes unchecked and unresolved.
Youths don’t know how to handle complicated relationships without supports in place and education around establishing healthy boundaries. Parents can take this opportunity to talk with tweens and teens about dating violence and how to develop healthy dating relationships.
Create a safe space
Creating a safe space to talk with teens is helpful to understanding the dynamics of what’s going on in their daily lives outside the home. In fact, teens tell me they crave conversations with grown-ups but they worry about judgment and responses.
“Validating their emotions is important because young relationships can be incredibly emotionally charged,” said Alison Trenk, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist who works with teens and young adults. “They’re trying on dating with only a handful of years of life experience.”
But don’t start trying to solve their problems right away — Trenk warns that if you immediately go into response mode, it will shut down the conversation.
Parents become a trusted source for their kids when they slow down and take the time to listen, validate emotions, empathize with complex feelings and share accurate information and resources to help their teens work through things. “Validate the strong feelings first so you can talk through the nuance of intimate relationships,” Trenk said.
Talk about healthy relationships
It’s a mistake to assume that teens know everything they need to know about developing healthy relationships from watching role models. They need specific guidance.
Trenk suggests encouraging teens to explore their values and how they relate to relationships, “One question you can ask is, how do you move toward a healthy connection that is in line with your values?”
Healthy relationships are built on trust, honesty and respect. Begin with these values but ask your teen to add to them. Together, you can make a word cloud of values that, when utilized in intimate relationships, build strong connections.
Know the warning signs
Teen relationships can feel both exciting and overwhelming. It’s easy to get lost in the high moments but miss some early warning signs of distress in a relationship.
Intense jealousy and arguments, controlling behavior, constant monitoring on Snap Maps or tracking apps, excessive communication, undue criticism and requests for a partner to keep secrets about behavior within the relationship are signs of an unhealthy relationship.
Examine issues around power
“If teens are striving for connection, exploiting power is not helpful,” Trenk said. “Unevenly distributed power leads to disconnection.”
Talk to your teens about power differentials that can occur within the context of relationships. In a healthy relationship, power is evenly distributed. Each person preserves their individuality and feels free to express themselves because their relationship is built on mutual respect. That’s an example of positive power.
Power differentials, on the other hand, can occur when one partner uses manipulation or force to disempower the other and gain control of the relationship. This development can occur gradually in teen relationships.
Teach assertiveness skills
All teens need to learn to set healthy boundaries and assert their feelings and needs in a relationship. A boundary is a clear line your teen draws to maintain a healthy relationship and can include physical, emotional, sexual, financial and time boundaries. Help your teen brainstorm healthy boundaries and how to communicate them to a partner.
Asserting boundaries can be difficult for teens, who often face pressure from a variety of sources. Practice at home by engaging in role-playing with your teen or encouraging your teen to practice in the mirror.
If you notice behavioral changes in your teen, including shifts in mood, eating and sleeping habits, academic struggles, loss of interest in usual daily activities, avoidance of friends, irritability or highly reactive behaviors, seek help for your teen. While open and honest communication couched in supportive language is a great start, you don’t have to go through this alone. A licensed mental health practitioner can help your teen, and you, navigate this difficult time.
If you or someone to you know is an abusive relationship, help is available at the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474.
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