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Dating Safety for Teens: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships

Dating Safety for Teens: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships

Spotting the signs of an unhealthy relationship can be challenging for all ages, but it’s especially difficult for teens. As parents, your number-one priority is keeping your child safe, and when they begin dating, you may worry about how they are treated or even feel helpless to protect them from harmful behavior. Luckily, there are many ways to effectively spot signs of an unhealthy relationship and help your teen cope with the issues a toxic relationship can cause.

Checklist for a Healthy Relationship

A healthy relationship can look different for everyone, but asking your teen the questions in the following checklist is a good place to start to determine whether their relationship is productive and not harmful.

  • Are you having fun?
  • Do you enjoy spending time separately?
  • Do you always feel safe with each other, physically and emotionally?
  • Is there trust?
  • Is there faithfulness?
  • Do you support each other’s goals?
  • Do you respect each other’s opinions?
  • Do you solve conflicts without put-downs?
  • Do you both accept responsibility for your actions?
  • Are you proud to be with each other?
  • Do you encourage each other’s interests?
  • Do you have privacy?
  • Do they encourage you to see your family and friends?
  • Do you allow each other space?

Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship

Toxic partners display a variety of destructive and harmful behaviors, which may vary in severity. The signs of an unhealthy relationship are not always obvious and can be insidious.

“Physical abuse is very clear – when someone hits you, you know you’ve been hit,” said Alexis Totaro, MSN, RN, WHNP-c, CARN-AP, Vice President of Mental Health Services – Chief Nurse Executive at Christian Health. “When someone is slowly whittling away your self-esteem through ridicule, condescension, and nasty comments, that’s much more subtle and harder to identify.”

Some common signs your teen is in an unhealthy relationship include:

  • Excessive jealousy
  • Name-calling and mocking
  • Control tactics, such as telling the other person how to dress or who they can see or talk to
  • Yelling
  • Criticizing
  • Threatening to harm the other person or themselves they you break off the relationship
  • Possessive behavior or being overly suspicious and making accusations of cheating
  • Withholding affection
  • Physical harm or aggressive behavior, such as tantrums, throwing things, punching the wall, hitting or shoving the other person, or other physical abuse

The Importance of the Age Difference

Age differences can be huge in adolescent relationships. When a teen is dating someone much older, it can be isolating. “It really pulls you away from your natural age group,” said Alexis. “You stop doing normal things you do at your age, like going to prom and sporting events, because the other person is not in that stage of their life.”

Someone who is much older can easily manipulate an impressionable young teen who is more naïve and does not have as much life experience. They may isolate the teen from their friends and family, instigate conflict, encourage the teen to lie to their parents, or expose them to drugs or alcohol.

Teens who are involved with someone older may see their grades slip, particularly because their partner is not worried about classes or studying. They may neglect previously held goals for the future, such as going to college, because of newly made plans for a life with the older partner.

How Parents Can Support Dating Safety for Their Teens

To ensure your teen is engaging in healthy relationships, it’s important to encourage open communication. The following tactics will help you effectively engage with your teen, ensure you are aware of what’s happening in their dating life, and allow you to protect them when necessary.

Be supportive and nonjudgmental

The most important thing to remember is not to judge. Be an active listener, support their rights to make choices that make them happy as long as they are healthy, and let them know that you are there for them always, no matter what. You want your teen to always be comfortable coming to you with a problem.

Make sure to refrain from placing blame or questioning their actions – such as criticizing any choices they made that led to them being treated poorly or abused. Never use language such as “What were you thinking?” or “How foolish can you be?” Always lend a loving, nonjudgmental ear, take them seriously, and provide constructive advice.

Ask questions, don’t make accusations

If you suspect your teen is in an unhealthy relationship, it can be difficult to start the conversation without alienating them. Try beginning a dialogue by validating them but then posing a question to gather more information. Say things like, “I know you're really smart and intuitive, but have you noticed that… ” If you address your teen by making accusations or demands, such as forbidding them to see their partner, it will only alienate them. “Start with praise and then bring their attention to the issue of concern in a nonjudgmental way,” said Alexis. “Sometimes they’re waiting for their parent to ask them. They may be worried about your retaliation, but let them know you just want to keep them safe.” Be calm so they feel safe disclosing to you.

Don’t invalidate their feelings

“When we’re younger, it’s all-or-nothing thinking,” said Alexis. “They may say things like ‘I’m never going to survive this,’ or ‘I can’t go to school.’ We call that ‘catastrophizing.’” While it’s important to let your teen know that their pain is not the end of the world, don’t invalidate their feelings in the process. Acknowledge the difficulty and hurt they are facing and suggest a productive solution, such as connecting with friends or engaging in their favorite hobbies.

Have a safety plan

If your teen is involved in a highly abusive relationship, breaking it off is unfortunately not always the end of it. You may need to involve the police, the school, or the abusive partner’s parents to ensure your teen stays safe from any potential retaliation. Devise a safety plan going forward after the breakup to ensure your teen is protected – such as making sure you pick them up from school or meet them outside, having a trusted friend sit with them at lunch, or requesting they call you at certain times of the day.

“Abusers abuse simply because they can, and they stop when they can't,” said Alexis. Ending the relationship won’t stop an abuser from trying to physically or emotionally harm your teen, but involving the proper authorities and taking active precautions will.

Consider counseling

If your teen is struggling with the aftermath of an unhealthy relationship, they may be experiencing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Counseling with a professional can help your teen process their emotions and learn coping methods or outlets to deal with their distress. It can also help them improve their outlook on dating for the future.

“It’s hard when teens experience a toxic relationship, because we don’t want them to keep picking the same types of partners as an adult,” said Alexis. “We want them to feel safe again to get out there in the world and be able to spot the red flags.”

Counseling for Teens at LiveWell

If you think your teen would benefit from mental health counseling, we can help. Our LiveWell Counseling center provides one-on-one counseling with compassionate mental health experts in a comforting, nonjudgmental environment to treat a number of issues that teens experience, including anxiety, depression, and trauma. For more information or to schedule an appointment for your teen, please call (201) 848-5800 or visit