Being a teenager today is complicated, but being the parent or guardian of a teenager? Whew! That job is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s the most important job we will ever have. As such, there are so many things that we try to educate our children about to protect them – drugs, alcohol and sex to name a few – but there is one topic of growing importance that many parents do not seem to have on their radar: teen dating violence. Scarily, teen dating violence is an issue that is closer than you may realize.

• One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
• One in three teenagers experience physical violence in their dating relationships.
• 40 percent of teenage girls, ages 14-17, report knowing someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.
• On average, violent relationships start at the age of 15.

Many of you may be reading this and thinking, “That is scary, but that won’t be my daughter. She is smarter than that. She hangs around with nice kids. She goes to a private school. She’s an honors student. She goes to church. She would never put up with being treated like that.”

In reality, teen dating violence crosses ALL socio-economic lines, and happens to families in our neighborhoods and in our schools. So much so that only one-third of teens in an abusive relationship will ever tell anyone what has happened, and that person is rarely a parent. If the truth were actually known, the number of reported teen dating violence instances might be even higher.

What is teen dating violence exactly?

• Checking cell phones, emails or social networks without permission
• Needing all of the details of their waking hours
• Extreme jealousy or insecurity
• Constant belittling or put-downs
• Explosive temper
• Putting limits on hanging out with family and friends; sometimes total isolation
• Making false accusations
• Constant mood swings towards you
• Physically inflicting pain or hurt in any way
• Possessiveness
• Telling someone what to do
• Repeatedly pressuring someone to have sex

In short, it is about one person exerting power and control over another. As the mother of two teenage girls, this is the single most important issue on the top of my agenda. With statistics like ONE IN THREE girls, I will use everything in my “Mother Arsenal” to educate them on the warning signs, again and again.

How do you keep your teenager from being involved in a bad relationship?

Due to my years of volunteer work in the area of domestic violence, my girls have grown up hearing me talk and try to educate them on the subject. Talking about healthy relationships and self-respect is one of the most important ways we can prevent unhealthy relationships for our teens. It is not always a comfortable conversation, but it’s a necessary one.

Teenagers have a mind of their own, but you can’t even begin to be the voice inside their head if you don’t start the conversation. And it is not a “one and done” as they say; it is a repeated conversation. While the signs of physical abuse can be obvious, the signs of verbal, emotional, digital, and sexual abuse aren’t as easy to recognize. It might take months or years for the first signs to appear, and it may start so subtly that they don’t even see it coming. For these reasons, repetitive conversations are key.

What do you do if you think your daughter might already be in an abusive relationship?

So, what do you do if you think your daughter might already be in a difficult relationship? You start the conversation. As I am sure you know, teenagers are sensitive, and they especially do not like to be seen has having made a wrong decision. Teen dating violence threatens, humiliates, belittles, isolates, and strips them of their dignity. It chips away at their self-esteem, shames and makes them feel guilty, many times in secrecy and darkness – all of these things that would be hard for adults to feel and process. So imagine the trauma that is created inside of a teenager. It is an emotional roller coaster to say the very least. These girls are looking for a ray of light or hope, but often are too afraid or ashamed to speak about it. They don’t want to feel stupid in front of their friends or disappoint their parents so they get stuck in a cycle and cannot find a way out. When you start the conversation, you’ve cracked open the door that may just be the ray of light they need. When you continue the conversation, again and again, you have let them know you are a safe place of understanding to which they can turn for help.

We have to also teach our kids to trust their instincts. If they start to feel like something in their relationship is not as it should be, they should listen to that voice sooner than later. And as parents, we too have to trust our instincts. It could be something that would save our child’s life.

The month of February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. I hope you will use this as an opportunity to start the conversation with your teenager. If you can’t start the conversation, you can’t break the silence.

Tiffany Jones serves on the Genesis Alliance Board as the parent liaison to STAR (Students Tackle Abusive Relationships)

Get the facts on teen dating violence.

Do you have a high schooler who might be interested in joining STAR (Students Tackle Abusive Relationships)? It’s never too early to stand up for what you believe in.