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Get ready for a decidedly new dating scene that is very different from past generations.  And we, “the adults” don’t have the new vocabulary or experience to help young people navigate this complicated layered relationship landscape.

Dating starts earlier: It is not unusual for seventh-graders to say, “I don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, we are just hanging out”.  However, 75% of 7th graders report they are dating. Often these relationships develop through texting or following social media posts. These first relationships usually don’t go beyond chatting, posing for pictures later posted on social media, and requests to attend group outings.

The New “Talking” Phase: Young people today don’t plunge into dating without first going through the “talking to each other” phase. This typically means talking through texting, instant messaging, or face-timing. If they are “talking” there is an attraction and a desire to spend time together online or in person, whether alone or in groups.

Events are a Group Experience: Young people don’t have to be dating or talking to anyone to be dating, that’s because they typically hang out in groups. The group eats dinner together, poses for pictures together, and meets up in town. And young people who already are in a relationship or are “a thing” will go with that special person, but still as part of the group.

Hooking Up is Common and Accepted: For high schoolers, it usually refers to making out at parties or hang-out spots. Young people hook up with people they’ve just met, casual acquaintances, and even friends. This can include touching, everything in between, and intercourse. For most teens, there are no strings attached.

What can I do? Our instinct is to protect and help young people in whatever way we can. This need to help or set boundaries can drive you to quickly react, but sometimes what feels like the right plan of action could stop the conversation before it begins.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when starting this conversation: Listen and give support- When talking to a young person about relationships, be supportive and non-judgmental. Let them know that it’s not their fault and that no one “deserves” to be treated in a mean way. If they do open up, it’s important to be a good listener. They may feel ashamed of what’s happening in their relationship. Many young people fear that trusted adults may overreact, blame them or be disappointed. Others worry that they won’t be believed, and the relationship will be minimized or misunderstood. If they do come to you to talk, let it be on their terms.

Accept what they are telling you: Do your best to believe they are being truthful. They may be reluctant to share their experiences and fear that no one will believe what they say. Showing skepticism or minimizing their feelings could make them hesitant to tell you when things are wrong and drive them closer to their abuser.

Show concern: Let them know that you are concerned for their safety by saying things like: “You don’t deserve to be treated like this;” “You deserve to be in a relationship where you are treated with respect” and “This is not your fault”. Be specific about the behavior and say, “This is not o.k and you deserve to have a kind, respectful, safe relationship”.

Talk about the behaviors, not the person: For example, instead of saying, “She is controlling” you could say, “I don’t like that she texts you to see where you are.” Remember that young people may still have strong feelings for this person. Also, talking badly about their dating partner could discourage them from asking for your help in the future.

Avoid ultimatums: For example, “You should break up with them right away”, or “You are not allowed to date anymore “. Young people need to be truly ready to walk away from the relationship. If you force the decision, they may be tempted to return to their abusive partner in secret because of unresolved feelings.

Decide on the next steps together: Ask “What ‘next steps’ would you like to take and how can I support you?” 

Keep this important research in mind when approaching these conversations: About 75% of seventh graders report they are in relationships. 60% of young people ages 14 to 20 report experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual relationship abuse, and about 58% report they have committed relationship abuse. These first love experiences create the foundation for all their future relationships. Breaking up or leaving a relationship is the most dangerous time for young people experiencing abuse. It’s important to make sure they are supported and have a safety plan in place.

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