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My little girls are small, just 6 and 4 ½, so the thought of them dating is something I won’t have to worry about for another decade, right? The answer is no! I and other moms of little ones should pay close attention to the results of a new survey, which found that not only are 7th graders already dating, many of them say they’re been subjected to psychological – and even – physical abuse from a boyfriend or girlfriend.
I need to take a big swig of my decaf skim latte to keep going! According to the new study of 1,430 7th graders, more than one in three, 37%, say they’ve felt intimidated or threatened in a relationship, and nearly one in six, 15%, say the abuse has been physical.
“It’s very troubling,” Kristin Schubert, Interim Director for Public Health for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told me in an interview. “It says to me we’re not doing enough to help kids understand how they should be treated and how they should treat other people."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with the Blue Shield of California Foundation commissioned the study by RTI International and are investing $18 million in 11 communities across the U.S. as part of a program called Start Strong, designed to come up with the best ways to stop dating abused and violence before it starts.
Okay, let me depress you a bit more: The study also found that nearly half of the students who were surveyed said they’ve been sexual harassed in the past six months, with that harassment ranging from being touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way to someone making sexual jokes about them. Remember, this is the 7th grade we are talking about! Nearly one in three, (31%), also said they have faced some form of dating abuse online.
“I think the most important message is that middle school matters,” said Schubert. “It is a critical time for parents, caregivers, (and) other adults to talk to their kids about dating, about healthy relationships and of course, the warning signs of violence and abuse.”
There was one positive in all the scary findings – that kids are actually talking to their parents about dating. Nearly three quarters of the 7th graders said that, in the last six months, they “sometimes or often” talked with their parents about topics such as “how to tell if someone might like you as a boyfriend or a girlfriend.”
The takeaway for this reporter mom -- and probably any other mom with little ones – is that it is never too early to start talking to our kids about healthy relationships. We can start, even at ages 3, 4, and 5, when kids are “starting to talk about how they treat each other,” said Schubert.
When our kids' feelings are hurt or someone they know had their feelings hurt, we can use those incidents as teachable moments to help our kids learn to treat others as they would want to be treated themselves. These are important conversations we knew we should have to raise awareness of and help prevent bullying, but clearly, these talks are also important for later, when our sons and daughters enter the wild world of dating.
We want a broken heart to be the worst thing to happen to them, not an emotionally or physically abusive relationship. Yes, I need another swig of that latte!
Kelly Wallace is Chief Correspondent of iVillage. Follow Kelly on Twitter (@kellywallacetv).