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Dating danger signs for teenagers

I enjoy working with adolescent clients. They feel everything so intensely, and typically bring a refreshing honesty and authenticity to therapy sessions.  When adolescents discuss their love interests with me, I try to stay objective as a therapist rather than speak as a parent. However, as a psychologist I try to influence teens to avoid romantic relationships with three types of peers.

1.  Kids who lie.  Trust is the key to all meaningful relationships and is built upon a foundation of honesty, caring, and communication. I advise teens to stay away from peers who cheat on them and then ask for forgiveness.  Love develops over time when you feel safe and secure in the presence of another, knowing that you have complete confidence in that person’s integrity. It’s a very special feeling that takes a long time to develop.  When you find someone like that, keep them close to your heart.

2. Kids who drink or smoke.  Experts assert that alcohol and cigarette smoking are the most dangerous drugs used by our kids. Since both are legal, they are readily accessible.  Thus, it’s easy for occasional usage to escalate into an ingrained habit.  Be particularly suspicious of anyone who says they love you but then encourages you to try either drug.

3.  Kids who abuse you. I’ve become increasingly concerned about the serious problem of adolescent dating violence. A recent article in the July 2012 journal of Pediatrics reported that from 9 to 34% of teens reported violence with a dating partner in the previous 12 months.  Girls are more likely to be victims than boys and minorities appear at greatest risk.

Violence is viewed somewhat broadly by the experts, and involves not only physical or sexual aggression, but also psychological or emotional intimidation.  Such outrageous behavior is often dismissed by teen victims, rationalized as a one-time aberrant behavior. In some instances, teens blame themselves, thinking that their behavior was somehow responsible for their abuse.

It’s hard to penetrate the armor of adolescent pseudo-love to dissuade kids from dating peers with these characteristics. I do this in my office by asking teens three types of questions.

  • What advice would you give your best friend who was dating someone who cheated, drank alcohol or was violent?  Why would you give that advice?  How would you respond to your friend’s attestations that she was “in love?”
  • What are your limits? How long are you willing to put up with being physically or emotionally abused by someone you love?
  • Think about your dreams you have regarding your ideal partner.  Does a person who drinks, cheats, or abuses you represent your best friend for life?
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