Advice on teen dating -- from a professional

The Baltimore Sun

Now that their teen daughters are starting to date, parents Bonnie and Marsha Rocke of Columbia want to make sure they understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

That's why the family attended a seminar on teen relationships, given by Robin McClave, outreach coordinator for the Domestic Violence Center in Columbia. The hourlong workshop was part of a wellness series offered by the school system.

"Even though I may say the same thing, it's different coming from the professionals," said Bonnie, the father of Diandra, 16, and Ericka, 14.

About 30 people attended the session, held Wednesday evening in the Homewood Center cafeteria.

McClave's discussion included interaction with the audience, as she walked around the room, asked questions and encouraged conversation about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

She also showed a short video, featuring testimony from teens who were in unhealthy relationships or knew people in unhealthy relationships.

None of the clips featured physical violence. Most of the abuse dealt with demanding gifts and attention, criticizing personal appearance and demanding that the boyfriend or girlfriend stop seeing their friends.

McClave emphasized that physical abuse is only one component of an unhealthy relationship. "From what we see of people who walk into our offices, physical abuse is the least of their worries," she said.

Mental, emotional and sexual abuse can be difficult to spot, especially when a person is blinded by emotion, she said. Her goal was to help her audience recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

To start, she handed out sheets of paper containing qualities that might be valued in a relationship, along with dollar amounts ranging from $15 to $50.

"Trust, for example, was worth $40, while "your friends approve" was worth $20. She asked everyone in the room to spend $100 on the qualities they most wanted in a relationship.

Diandra said she spent her money on respect, physical attraction and security. She chose respect, she said, because "if you don't respect me, I'm not going to respect you."

A boy seated toward the back of the room put his money on respect and trust. McClave liked those answers. "Trust is a big part of a relationship," she said.

Then she asked participants to name the qualities of a healthy relationship and wrote down what they said. Communication, acceptance and fairness were on her list.

McClave said relationships must have balance.

"You want equity in a relationship," she said. "You don't want one person doing all the work."

Unhealthy qualities included pressure, intimidation, dependence, disrespect and jealousy. "Jealousy is the opposite of trust," McClave said.

Another sign of trouble, she said, is one person trying to change another. "If you're in a relationship with someone, you should like them for who they are."

Spotting an unhealthy relationship is not as easy to as it seems, McClave said. "When you see these things on paper, it seems so obvious," she said. But relationships tend to start with a "honeymoon phase," when everything seems wonderful, she said. Problems don't surface right away.

"Eventually, there's going to be something that causes a little bit of tension," she said. "That's fine. That's healthy. It's how you deal with that tension that determines if you're in a healthy relationship."

Healthy couples talk through their disagreements, she said. But in unhealthy relationships, the issue does not get resolved. Pressure builds, "and then there's the explosion," she said.

This explosion looks different in each relationship, she said, and it will not always be violent. But she urged teens to recognize and reject relationships that do not bring them happiness.

"Relationships should be a source of joy in your life. They shouldn't be a source of sadness," she said.

After the session, Ericka Rocke, an eighth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, said she found it "very informational."

Her father agreed. "I think peer pressure really has a lot to do with what is acceptable and what is not," he said.

He would like the school system to offer more workshops about teen relationships.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "it should be mandatory."

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