Parents may often have good intentions when they initiate discussions about sex, contraception and teenage dating with their teens. Yet, parents may not realize that during these talks, a very important issue may be unintentionally left out ... the explanation of healthy versus unhealthy relationships.
Teens are still navigating the road of life and may not realize red-flag relationship situations. In addition to providing explanations about why teenage pregnancy may be problematic and preparing teens through conversations about abstinence, conception or the importance of using contraception, parents should be guiding their sons and daughters on how to effectively navigate the world of teenage relationships.
Parents – Help Your Teen Avoid Unhealthy Relationships:
You should help your teen be alert for warning signs of unhealthy relationships. Often, teenagers may not be able to determine if they are in an unhealthy or potentially abusive relationship. Some red flags that may signal an unhealthy relationship include:
- Strong pressure to engage in sex
- Boyfriends or girlfriends who try to isolate your teen from friends or family
Another indicator of a potentially unhealthy relationship that often goes unnoticed is if your teen’s boyfriend/girlfriend is constantly texting or calling, gets upset if your teen participates in activities without him/her and/or is demanding of your teen’s time. Teens may perceive such possession as an indication that their boyfriend/girlfriend loves them so much that he/she always wants to be with them. But more likely than not, this type of behavior may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
Is It Love?
Teens may not understand the differences between love and sex. Some good advice for teens who are unsure about getting into a serious relationship is - friends first, dating later. If your teen is friendly with someone and is thinking about becoming a couple, encourage them to consider the following:
- Do you communicate well with each other?
- Do you have shared interests?
- Do you have friends in common?
- Do you respect each other?
- Do your friends like and trust this person?
If any of the answers to these questions is "no," there may be the potential for an unhealthy relationship. Teens may be confused about whether or not they are in love. Don’t make the error of dismissing your teen’s feelings by telling him or her that "you’re too young to be in love." This should be an opportunity to help your teen understand his or her feelings as well as assess whether or not an unhealthy relationship may be on the horizon.
Discuss this individual with your teen. Talk about the characteristics of this relationship. For example, is it based mainly on physical attraction, is there equal give and take, does this person accept your teen and support his or her interests? All of these considerations could provide valuable insight into the quality of this relationship.
Consequences and Dangers of Cyberspace:
In addition to discussing the consequences that can come with unprotected sex, make sure to also talk about what may make sex tempting and the reasons why your teen may consider having sex. Include discussion about the potential dangers of being overtly sexual on the Internet (either by posting suggestive pictures of themselves, engaging in flirtatious conversations or posting too much personal information). You can also instruct your teen to never do anything that makes him or her feel uncomfortable or be involved in activities like sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or photographs to somebody’s cell phone).
Remind him or her that once they send or post a particular picture, they have no control over where it goes or who will eventually see it. This could negatively affect their reputation and potentially lead to poor self-esteem - both of which can leave your teen more vulnerable to attracting unhealthy relationships.
Age Differences in Teenage Relationships:
Some additional areas that could breed unhealthy relationships include whether or not there is a significant age difference in your teen's relationship. This could cause an inequity in power, making it difficult for your teen to negotiate sexual activity and/or contraception use.
Research by Brown and Flanigan shows that, among teens ages 12 to 14, 13% of same-age relationships include sex. Yet this number increases to 26% if there is a two-year age difference. And if the partner is three or more years older, 33% of the relationships involve sex. In addition (among 14-year-olds), 73% of boys and 30% of girls whose oldest serious boyfriend or girlfriend was two or more years older reported being sexually experienced - as compared to 29% of boys and 13% of girls whose oldest partner was no more than one year older.
Certain relationship characteristics have been shown to affect teen birth control use as well as teenage sexual behavior. Teens in unhealthy relationships may leave them more at risk for experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. Data by Manlove and others reveal that teen relationships where there are older partners or differences in race, ethnicity, social economic statuses, etc., tend to be linked with lower contraception use. This is also the case if your teen doesn’t know his or her partner very well.
Parents have the responsibility to teach their teens about life’s choices and the consequences of those choices. Part of this task may be helping your teen stay away from unhealthy relationships. In order to assess whether your teen may be in danger, it is essential to your teen and his or her feelings seriously. If your teen is in an unhealthy relationship, he or she may need your help in ending it. Remember that the lessons they learn from their teenage relationships will serve as the foundation for the relationships they form as adults.
Albert, B., Brown, S., & Flanigan, C. (eds.) (2003). 14 and younger: The sexual behavior of young adolescents. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Pregnancy.
Manlove, J., Ryan, S., & Franzetta, K. Contraceptive use patterns across teens’ sexual relationships: The role of relationships, partners, and sexual histories. Demography. 2007. 44(3):603-621. Accessed via private subscription 2/5/12.