How to talk to your teen about dating violence

Does your daughter know how to stand up for herself, her rights, her needs—like her needs to keep herself safe? It’s hard, in a world where Rihanna’s duet with Eminem (which portrays a violent relationship) wins an award for Best Rap/Hip-Hop Track.
            Does your daughter believe that a slap or a threat is violence? Or does she think it’s only when a boyfriend smashes her in the face that she’s experienced violence. Rihanna sings: “Just gonna stand there. And watch me burn. But that’s alright. Because I like the way it hurts… But that’s alright. Because I love. The way you lie (‘Love the Way You Lie’ Lyrics by Eminem).”
            If your daughter found herself in a violent relationship, could she rework Rihanna’s words and use them as a mantra: “I don’t love the way it hurts,” or “I don’t like the way you lie,” or “I’m not going to watch myself burn.” Could she find the courage to “stand up and exit,” not just “stand there?”
            It’s hard to know when we can work things out with an aggressive partner, and when we can’t. Ask her: “What would be a good reason to stay?” If she doesn’t answer something like, “If I can take back my rights, trust him not to push me again and build a healthier relationship,” then you might want to talk about what makes for a healthy relationship. And what skills that will allow her to get her needs met.
            “Healthy relationships are about being mutual,” says Dr. Joanne Davila, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook. “Being able to have open, two-way conversations to see each other’s perspective, listen (without judgment), take turns talking, and adjust your perspective when the other raises good points.”
            Does your daughter know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors? Would she come to you if, after she talked to another guy at a party, her boyfriend got angry, smashed his fist into the wall? She needs to be able to.
            Teens often don’t recognize violence within a relationship. They don’t understand manipulation when it comes from a boyfriend or girlfriend. They’re so into the relationship, they believe that however that person treats them is okay, as long as they stay.
            So how do we talk to our teens? How can we help them recognize abuse, and encourage them to talk to us if it happens? Teens often lack relationship information and skills, and so do lots of parents.
            I once said to my teenaged daughter, “Honey, if you have to lie to him to see your friends, he’s a control freak. That’s not healthy. You have to break up with him.” But was that the right thing to say?
            No, because it’s dictatorial. You’re telling her what you want her to do. We have to become good at speaking with our child, not at her. Give her information, like: ‘Jealousy shows a lack of trust, not love. Excessive jealousy is emotional abuse.’ And ask questions: ‘How do you feel about not seeing your friends as much, now that you’re in a relationship?’ Or: ‘Why do you think he doesn’t want you to be with your friends or family?’ And then let her talk.”
            Emotional abuse shouldn’t clear any woman’s bar, ever. It’s often a precursor to sexual and physical aggression. Our teens believe “who they date” and “what goes on in their relationship” is their own business. So we need to help them set their own standards—their bar.
            How can parents help teens set their bar? By being mutual. When you tell your teen, “You can’t do this,” and “You can’t do that,” she’s thinking, “You don’t trust me. You just want to control me.” So while you tell her this guy’s a control freak and you don’t want her seeing him anymore, a bell goes off—she recognizes you as controlling. Why, then, would she come to you if something threatening came up—like her boyfriend smashing his fist into a wall?
            What should a mother say? We can give her information, like “Emotional abuse often stems from disrespectful ways a guy gets his needs met. A guy shows respect by how he gets his needs met from you. In a healthy relationship he’ll ask for what he wants, leave it up to you to say yes or no. If he gets his needs met by telling, threatening, smashing his fist into a wall, he doesn’t respect you.”
            And we can show her how to set a bar. A girl establishes what behaviors she’ll accept by asking questions: “Does he ask for what he wants, then leave it up to me to say yes or no? Or does he use controlling behavior like bossing, pressuring, demanding, threatening?”
             Practicing the skill to be mutual with your teen is the way to help them sound like this—“What made you think you could do that and get away with it?” “When we have a fight again what would make me think you won’t show this aggression?”—when they encounter aggressive behavior.
            If a boyfriend gets angry at having to answer questions, or refuses to answer them, he’s not being mutual. He can’t build a healthy relationship. So, after the first threat or slap, it’ll be impossible for your daughter to determine whether or not she can ever trust him. That’s what we all need our daughters to understand.
Dr. Julius Licata is director of (, an on-line site that offers teens free professional advice and counseling. Kaycee Jane is the author of “Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends.”