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As the mother of a teen, I’ve approached that point in parenting where I’m compelled to spend much of the next several years concerned about the nature of my child’s relationships and when and whether they might involve sex.  I know I’m hardly alone in this worry since, as a sex educator, I’ve spent much of my career addressing how other parents can help their kids make smart choices about sex. Yet I’m also clear that there are other, more disturbing, aspects of teen relationships that get less attention. Teen romantic relationships can be very intense, and sometimes, unfortunately, violence is a very real occurrence.

The recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) highlights some troubling news about this issue: nearly 10 percent of high school students had been “hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose” by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the year preceding the survey, and eight percent reported that they had been forced to have sexual intercourse.  These numbers may seem relatively low, but they stand out because relationship violence has not shown improvement since the CDC began reporting this data.  Clearly young people need more help establishing healthy relationships and learning how to avoid unhealthy ones.

Parents play a key role in helping kids define and establish healthy relationships, and can also keep an eye out for signs that their child might be in an abusive relationship. Changes in behavior and rejecting friends to spend more time with a boyfriend or girlfriend are key indicators.  That’s why it’s crucial for parents to always know where their teens are and who they are with, and that they get to know their teen’s friends and boyfriend or girlfriend.

School-based sex education programs also help young people to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships and to build the skills they need to help them avoid violent relationships. Hundreds of studies have shown that comprehensive sex education programs have had measurable success helping young people wait to have sex, use condoms and other forms of birth control when they become sexually active, and limit the number of partners they have.  These programs also include guidance for setting healthy boundaries, including the ability to say no to sex and establishing positive, respectful relationships.  Relationships are complex, and young people need consistent guidance on developing healthy ones.

Unfortunately, schools are pressed to focus their time on standardized test preparation, making health education a low priority.  But without good sex education that consistently teaches young people how to communicate, negotiate, and deal with conflict in relationships, we leave them vulnerable to abuse.

It’s alarming that so many young people are the victims of abusive relationships, but there is much we can do to combat this problem.  It is critical that as a society we focus our attention on helping young people get more guidance on healthy relationships and advocate for more comprehensive sex education in schools.  Bottom line:  there needs to be more than just a single conversation about healthy relationships; this should be addressed consistently over many years.

For more information on healthy relationships, visit plannedparenthood.org, loveisrespect.org, and startstrongteens.org.

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Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.


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