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Can it even be called dating? Your daughter is "going out" with seven or so other kids. But she has confided to you that now she's "going out" with Michael. He's one of the seven. No invitation to something special. No shy boy on your doorstep arriving to pick her up. No chance to ask him what school he goes to and who his parents are. Instead, Alishe comes to pick up your daughter because she wants to use your curling iron. Then, together, they "go out" to meet the rest of the group, including Michael.
In the last decade, the trend has been for teens to go out in groups, especially adolescents age thirteen to fifteen. One benefit is that it's more inclusive. If a teen is quiet or awkward, he might otherwise be excluded from one-on-one dating during adolescence. There's also a safety benefit to going out to movies, doughnut shops, and parks surrounded by a cushion of friends. But how do parents get to know their teen's significant other? And how can you possibly set and maintain limits when you're dealing with a group of seven or so kids?
Don't hesitate to contact other parents of the kids in the group. All it takes is for two parents to agree that 11:30 p.m. is an appropriate curfew to send the whole group home before midnight. Your teen will probably tell you not to dare talk to her friends' parents, but make your intentions clear. "One of my jobs as a parent is to ensure that you're safe," you can explain. Assure her that you're not prying. You just want to know what the parents of other kids consider a reasonable curfew.
Go ahead and ask about your daughter's boyfriend, too, maintaining an attitude of respect and interest. If you play a supportive rather than a controlling role, your teen may keep you informed. Suggest that your daughter invite Michael (and a few other friends if it's more comfortable) for a family barbecue. You'll get to know him and, just as important, Michael will get to know your family and the behaviours you value.
Don't be surprised if your daughter's boyfriend is older than she is. In adolescent couples, the boy tends to be older than the girl, typically by three years. Girls can approach puberty two or three years before boys do and finish puberty long before boys, so they are more advanced in their desire for relationships than their same age male peers. But if your daughter is in grade nine and she has caught the eye of a boy about to graduate, you may become panicked and want to put a halt to it. Statistics show that young teens are more likely to be sexually active if they are involved with older partners. Try to express your concerns in an uncritical way to increase your child's awareness of potential difficulties rather than to criticize the boyfriend. Start by expressing your concerns: "I feel a little concerned ... " or "It seems to me ... " or "I wonder if..." Another way of comfortably discussing the relationship with your child is to use the third person, as in "I knew a girl who..." or the first person, as in "I once had a boyfriend who..."
When a relationship breaks up, your teen may feel devastated, especially if it's the first time his or her heart has been broken. Don't trivialize your teen's pain -- it may be overwhelming. Brace yourself as your child works through all the stages of grief. There may be tears, but you may have to listen to them through a closed door. She may prefer to lock herself in her room than to talk through her tangled web of feelings with her parents.
Your son or daughter may go over and over what happened and feel shaky about starting a new relationship. The former partner may quickly get involved with someone new. Don't make observations on the now defunct relationship. Your role is to be available and supportive to your child, make his favourite dinner or make time to spend with him. He needs to know that he's still lovable.
Continue to page 2 for other things to talk about with your teen, like how to get help if there's violence.
Forced sexual activity
In Canada, any forced sexual activity is considered by law to be sexual assault, which is an act of aggression and a serious crime. More than half of all sexual assaults against women are committed against teenage women. In most cases of sexual assault, the offender is someone the victim, female or male, knows and trusts.
When talking to your teens about healthy sexuality, you should say clearly that choosing to be sexually active carries with it the responsibility of respecting the boundaries set by one's partner. Teens need to understand that while they have strong desires, they can and must control their actions. Both your son and your daughter need to know that one partner saying No -- in words or conduct, or just by not consenting -- is their legal right and should stop the partner from continuing unwanted sexual activity or behaviour. They may then recognize that a partner who uses physical or psychological threats to exert power over them is abusing the concept of consent.
Helping kids learn to protect themselves in a sexual situation is a proactive approach for a family to take. Kids may find it difficult to say No to someone they like and have trusted to this point. They need to know that one person breaks the trust by trying to impose his will on another person, that each person is in charge of her or his own body, that they can say No and expect the other person to accept their decision.
Both children and teens need to learn how to recognize the dangers of certain situations and the warning signs of potential aggression. If you talk with your teens about sexual assaults and the circumstances that surround such occurrences, you not only help them understand ordinary dangers but you also let them know that they can count on your advice and support if they're ever assaulted. Some teens may not tell you if an assault takes place because the offender is someone you know and apparently like, or because your teen was doing something she knew you wouldn't approve of, or because she fears that you will become overprotective. Teens should, nevertheless, know what their community offers as resources and crisis centres to victims of assault.
If the day comes when your teenage daughter tells you that she's been sexually assaulted, try to remain calm, be supportive, and assure her that she did nothing wrong. Sexual assault is one of the few crimes for which we question whether the victim is guilty and place the onus on the victim to prove that the assault took place. Don't blame your teen's halter-top, her friends, or the places she hangs out. No one brings sexual assault on herself.
The event needs to be talked out, because assault is a traumatic experience for everyone. Your daughter may need some time to deal with her emotions; if it was a case of date rape, she may want to take time off school so as not to face the offender every day. Post traumatic stress response -- recurrent nightmares, flashbacks to the assault, acting out with unusual behaviour and intense anxiety -- is not unusual. Your other children and extended family may want to know why your daughter's mood has changed. Your daughter may want to keep the details private, but if they know that she's been a victim of violence, they can give their support.
Help your teen feel that it's OK to reach out not only to her family but also to counsellors at sexual assault care centres, women's help lines, and distress centres. Counsellors understand what your daughter is going through and are trained to help her through the crisis. Offer to make an appointment for her, then drive her there. Respect her wishes if she prefers that you stay in the waiting room.
Without an opportunity to talk through her feelings about the assault, the experience may fester. Be sensitive to her responses, and don't try to talk about it when she clearly doesn't want to. But people who have been sexually assaulted and who don't receive the support of family, friends, or community agencies in their recovery tend to suffer low self-esteem, to become distrustful of their own judgment and of other people. Girls tend to feel ashamed or guilty, blaming themselves for the crime; boys tend to lash out. Both may guard against future intimacy because they feel that they can't trust their partners.
Reporting the crime
It's reliably estimated that only 5 to 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported. If your teen wants to file an incident report with police, take her to a hospital emergency department to obtain evidence such as semen samples, pubic hair, or vaginal bruising within 72 hours of the assault. After investigating the incident, police decide whether or not to lay charges. If your daughter decides not to report it to the police, it's her legal right. Show your support in other ways.
Alternatives to the legal system are possible.The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, for example, will write a confidential letter to the assailant to let him know that what he has done is wrong, and to suggest that he seek counselling about his behaviour toward women. Some women, through the help of a sexual assault crisis centre, choose to confront their assailant. This non-violent confrontation is not a conversation. It is carefully planned and includes several people who will support your daughter and assure her physical safety. The man must be quiet and listen. It's the victim's turn to speak and be heard.
Excerpted from Understanding Your Teen: Ages 13 to 19 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.