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“Healthy Safe Relationships: Never Too Early to Start”

This article was submitted to CPC by students of a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse program advised by professor Lisa Caya. The contributing students are (in alphabetical order): Bridget Brinckman, Katie Henning, Kelli Niccolai, Dan Pizzi, and Nic van Oss.

Statistics for this article provided by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA) and the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund.

Adolescents are at a greater risk for relationship abuse and sexual violence than any other age group, and much of this risk can be attributed to high rates of date rape within this group. A recent nationwide survey revealed the shocking statistics that 12 percent of female high school students and 5 percent of males had experienced some form of sexual violence. In Wisconsin, the average age of a sexual assault victim is 15 and almost 80 percent of total victims are juveniles. What’s even more disturbing about these statistics is that most experts agree these incidents are dramatically under-reported. These traumatic incidents have untold consequences for our youth. Studies have consistently linked a history of sexual violence in adolescents to other high-risk behaviors: eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, and future high-risk sexual behaviors.

The causes of this epidemic are controversial and complex, but many agree that teens are too often ill-informed and left unprepared to protect themselves. In Wisconsin, 18 percent of surveyed teens believe that if a guy buys a girl dinner, he has the right to have sex with her. In the same survey, 44 percent indicated that if a couple have been drinking alcohol, it is not sexual assault if one forces the other to have sex; 42 percent believed that, once a couple has had sex once, it is not sexual assault for one to force the other into sex. Teens who hold beliefs like these are less likely to report being assaulted or abused and are more likely to blame themselves when they are victimized.

Parental Involvement

Many teens do not keep their parents informed about personal issues in their lives, which causes parents to remain in the dark about their relationships. Unhealthy relationships include not only physical abuse, but sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse as well. There are many warning signs you, as a parent, can watch for to determine if your child is involved in an unhealthy relationship.

Warning Signs of an unhealthy relationship:

  • extreme jealousy
  • controlling behavior
  • unrealistic expectations
  • isolation
  • blames others for problems/feelings
  • “playful” use of force
  • verbal abuse
  • rigid gender roles
  • severe mood swings

What can you do?

After assessing these warning signs, you may be afraid that your son or daughter is in an abusive relationship. So where do you go from here? Talk. Communication is key! As much as every parent would like to step in and confront their son’s or daughter’s abuser, this may cause even more abuse. Talking to your child about your concerns is the first step. Being understanding and non-judgmental may help your child open up, even though it may be difficult to do so.

A lack of previous positive relationship experiences is one reason why some children may be more vulnerable. If this is a first boyfriend or girlfriend, children may believe this is the only person that will ever love them, so reminding them of their strengths and positive qualities is another way to provide support. This is a difficult situation for your child and without trust and understanding, it will be hard for him or her to open up enough for you to help.

Ultimately, it’s your child’s decision on what steps to take in the relationship, so being supportive and patient with him or her, no matter how long it takes and how frustrating it is, is key. Educating them about safer opportunities, information, and providing your support may encourage teens to make the safe decision. Offering resources is another great way to help.

Resources for Your Teen
It is helpful to describe what help lines/hotlines do and make the numbers readily available in your home so your child has easy access to them.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE


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