Dating Violence: How Soon Do We Prepare Our Girls?

Did anyone have a dating “talk” with you when you were a kid?

I don’t mean “THE” talk; I mean a chat about things like how you should expect to be treated on a date — what is and isn’t OK for a person to say to you or do to you that have nothing to do with sex. As the mom of a seventh-grade girl, we’ve talked about cyber-bullying in friendships (which, sadly, she’s already experienced) and that if someone says hurtful things or treats you in disrespectful ways, then it’s time to rethink whether that person is really a friend and how to deal with that.

But now that our soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter has recently attended the first of many bar/bat mitzvah events that will take place this year, I’ve realized it’s time to up the ante in parenting talks.

My daughter, who used to confine her wardrobe choices strictly to sports shorts and one of her vast wardrobe of soccer shirts, spent weeks pondering what dress to wear, how to fix her hair and what she would do if any of the boys asked her to dance. I was pretty confident that the possibility of a seventh-grade boy having the courage to ask any girl to dance individually, rather than in groups, was pretty slim. No need to worry my pretty little head about that yet, I was sure!

Once again, my parenting radar was, shall we say, a bit off.

Boys were asking girls to dance. She shyly shared with me her excitement and fear over the whole thing. Not many, but I was surprised the boy/girl interaction moved beyond doing the Electric Slide and throwing M&M’s at one another. So even though she’s still only 12, I’ve started to steel myself for talks about dating. Not that she’s going on any solo dates any time soon if I have anything to say about it (which I do!), but I’ve been thinking about the need to start a series of conversations with her about what a healthy dating relationship should look like, how to be brave enough to know that it’s OK to tell a boy “no” to anything she feels uncomfortable with, what constitutes being treated well, and what is the opposite.

One of my stepdaughters recently reminded me through a Facebook post that we teach others how to treat us through our own actions. That’s something I definitely want my daughter to internalize, but, no big surprise, she doesn’t want to hear anything about dating or boys from me, her old, out of touch, grew up in the dinosaur days mom!

Yes, she’ll have her friends and her big sisters to turn to, but not every girl has those resources when a dating situation or a relationship goes wrong. So I was glad to hear about a program called Love is Respect, that provides information about what actions are never part of healthy relationships and also has a texting hotline that girls and women alike can access to ask questions and get more information about needed information or resources.

A variety of sponsors have signed on to help promote these efforts to address teen dating violence, including the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, Mary Kay and Avon, among others, to help Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Helpline promote awareness among parents of tween and teen girls about what their daughters are actually saying about what’s happening in their dating lives vs. what the reality might be.

In support of their work with this effort and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Mary Kay recently released a survey that showed that one in three teenage girls reported some type of dating abuse and that a huge number of parents are clueless (my word, not the report’s) about the violence in their daughters’ dating lives.

For example, more than 80 percent of parents of girls ages 11 to 14 say their daughter hasn’t been in a romantic relationship, while nearly half of those girls say they have. About 62 percent of these tweens say they’ve been put down, insulted or called names in this relationship, but only 34 percent of parents know this. And one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

I thought I was an informed parent of a tween girl, but I have to say, I had no idea.

I thought I had more time to begin having some of these conversations with our daughter. Now I know better. She won’t like it, but that’s OK. It’s my job to have these conversations and it’s her job to push back, roll her eyes and insist she “knows everything.” I just have to hope that some of what I say seeps into her adolescent brain and takes hold for her dating future.

(This was not a compensated post. A friend brought this program to my attention and given my personal experiences and my growing concern about how we talk with our tween and teen girls about healthy relationships, I wanted to write about it and bring it some attention).

Image by Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved.

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