Helping Teens Understand Unhealthy Dating Relationships

heartsickness-428103_1280Most adults would agree that the teen years can be a vulnerable period.  Teens juggle the mastery of many tasks during this phase.  One of the most important is developing the tools needed to form healthy partner relationships.  Unfortunately, for many teens, an introduction to unhealthy relationships occurs during this time.  According to the CDC, 1 in 4 teens say they’ve been verbally, physically, emotionally or sexually abused by a dating partner.  And, about 10% of teen students say they’ve been physically hurt by a partner in the past year.  A high percentage of teens experiencing these behaviors do not tell their parents or other significant adults in their lives.

The effects of teen dating violence can be quite severe.  The CDC reports that its victims are more likely to experience eating disorders and depression, do poorly in school, be involved with drug and alcohol use and continue being involved in unhealthy intimate relationships into adulthood.  And, teen girls who suffer from dating violence are more like to have an unintended pregnancy.

Parents, health care providers, and teachers are among those in critical positions to help teens understand what unhealthy relationships look like.  What’s the best approach?  As with any problem, there are many ways to be proactive.  However, making sure teens know what to look out for is an important first step.  Some examples of unhealthy dating behaviors highlighted by the advocacy group, Futures Without Violence, are presented below.  The health and safety of any teen experiencing these behaviors may be in jeopardy.

  • Being hit, slapped, pushed, or kicked
  • Called insulting names or being overly criticized
  • Prevented from engaging with family and friends
  • Being humiliated, either in person or online
  • Experiencing control over where they go, what they wear or what they do
  • Feeling pressured to do participate in sexual acts

There are many measures that adults can take to support teens in developing healthy partner relationships and avoiding unhealthy, potentially harmful ones.  Parents, in particular, are on the front line in addressing this issue with their teens.  Some “common sense” guidelines include:

  • Modeling healthy behaviors in your own partner relationships
  • Promoting the importance of self-respect
  • Communicating to teens that abuse, in any form, is never acceptable
  • Looking for changes in behavior such as moodiness or increased irritability that  teens suffering from an unhealthy partner relationship may exhibit
  • Observing for signs of unhealthy behaviors in a teen’s dating partner and speaking up about your concerns
  • Pointing out examples of unhealthy partner relationship on tv, in the movies, and on social media outlets

If you are concerned that a teen you know is at risk of or is possibly in an unhealthy dating relationship, seeking guidance from a school counselor, health care provider or spiritual advisor can be an important first step.  Online assistance can be obtained from several organizations including Futures Without Violence (  and Love is Respect (  Concerted and proactive efforts are needed to ensure that every young person understands what constitutes an unhealthy dating relationship, feels empowered to resist being in one, and is able to reach out for guidance if they are ever a victim.



Teens, Sex, and Pesky Birth Control Myths


Roughly half of teens who became pregnant hadn’t used birth control, according to a CDC report. Why? Numerous explanations exist, but the fact that many teens believe in myths about birth control and sex is definitely one of them.


Teens, who experience many changes during the transition from childhood to adulthood, may be more likely to believe in myths or misinformation than adults.  Research tells us that the teen brain is not fully developed.  In fact, brain development and maturation aren’t fully realized until about age 25.  This concept helps to explain why the ability of teens to make sound decisions and exercise high degrees of reasoning in their decision-making is often compromised.

As an OB/GYN physician, I understand the challenges of educating sexually active teens about birth control while also confronting prevailing myths that can be dangerous. This article sheds light on five popular myths and offers straight facts that adults can use to educate their teens.

Myth #1:  You won’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.

Fact:  There’s no such thing as a pass for beginners. If a teen girl has unprotected sex near the time she ovulates (releases an egg from her ovary), she can easily become pregnant. It’s possible to become pregnant a few days before, during, and after ovulation. Effective birth control and condom use should always be used to protect against pregnancy and STDs (dual contraception).

Myth #2:  Pregnancy won’t occur if the male partner “pulls out” or withdraws prior to ejaculation or orgasm.

Fact:  Withdrawal is a common birth control method among teens, but is not highly effective. In fact, the failure rate of withdrawal is more than 25%, according to some reports. Pre-ejaculation fluid may contain sperm. And, withdrawal requires a certain amount of self-discipline, which is likely more difficult for teen males than adults.  While withdrawal is better than nothing, its use should be discouraged in favor of dual contraception (effective hormonal or non-hormonal birth control and a condom).

Myth #3:  A girl won’t get pregnant if she has sex during her period.

Fact:  It’s easy to understand why this myth prevails, and it’s true that it’s unlikely for a girl to become pregnant when she’s on her period. Usually ovulation occurs about two weeks prior to the start of a period. However, in some cases bleeding may occur in the absence of ovulation. If a girl has sex during this bleeding and ovulates soon afterward, she could potentially get pregnant since sperm can live in her body for several days. It’s never worth taking a chance that ovulation won’t occur during a bleeding episode.

Myth #4:  The hormones in birth control make you gain weight

Fact: Teens are very image-conscious and it can be difficult to persuade them to use birth control that they think causes weight gain.  Several studies have been done on birth control pills.  While some teens may experience a small increase in weight, most studies show that birth control pills do not cause weight gain when compared to women taking placebo pills (tablets with no medication in them). Nonetheless, concerns about the pill and weight gain are common from my teen patients and adults as well.


The most effective methods of birth control are the IUD (intra-uterine device) and the implant (small rod placed under the skin in the arm).  They are also known as LARCs (Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives).  Weight gain is very unlikely in IUD users and reported to occur in only 6-12% of implant users.  These points are well worth stressing to teens.

Myth #5:  Birth control causes cancer

Fact:  It is important for teens to know that the birth control pill is actually associated with protection against ovarian, uterine and colorectal (large intestine and rectum) cancers. The progestin containing IUD is also associated with a decrease in uterine cancer and may even be prescribed as a risk reduction measure in very obese young females. Uterine cancer risk is also decreased in females who use the depo-provera shot.  Informing teens of these facts can ease their concerns and reluctance to use birth control because they believe the cancer myths.

This article is adapted from Before It’s Too Late, A Parent’s Guide to Teens, Sex, and Sanity by Sheila Overton, M.D., FACOG



5 Ways to Become an Approachable Parent: Positive Parenting for Teen Sexual Health

family-photo-827763_1920One of the top questions I’ve encountered from parents as an OB/GYN and health educator is: “How can I get my teen to come to me with questions and concerns about sex?”



While some parents and teens may have that near-perfect, open relationship that allows them to discuss sensitive issues like sex easily, my experience is that most don’t. There are many things that parents can do to create an environment in which their teen feels comfortable coming to them with questions about sex.

One of the most important traits a parent can possess is that of an “Approachable Parent.” This is a parent who encourages their teen to feel safe and comfortable bringing up sensitive concerns. The top five traits of an approachable parent listed below are based on the feedback I’ve received from parents and teens during seminar presentations since 1998 and in my clinical work.

1. A Nonjudgmental Outlook
If you find out your 14-year-old teen has been having sex, how are you supposed to react? Being nonjudgmental doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have an opinion or to be upset. What it means is that you don’t react externally by condemning or berating your teen. In this instance, you might choose to say something like “This is upsetting, let’s talk.” A judgmental response might sound something like, “How could you let this happen? That’s really stupid on your part!” A nonjudgmental response is more likely to leave your teen feeling that she/he can really talk to you about the situation.

2. A Listening Ear
This means really being attentive and listening actively, nodding your head or saying “yes” or “um hmm” to show that you are very interested in what’s being said. It also means using good eye contact with your teen and not interrupting. It’s a good idea to ask your teen how she/he feels about the situation being discussed.

3. Open-mindedness
When concerns arise, flexibility and the willingness to consider several options are needed. I strongly urge parents to be open to their teens talking to another close relative or an adult who is a close family friend about sex-related questions. I’ve seen parents react with hurt or anger at the thought of their teen turning to someone else. However, remember that the primary goal is that your teen be able to talk to a responsible adult who can give accurate information, not for you to always be in charge.

4. A Calm Demeanor
A calm demeanor will help you and your teen deal with what’s really important and to take more logical and meaningful steps in handling any situation.
For instance, if your 16-year-old-daughter told you she had an STI (sexually transmitted infection), a calm response might sound like this: “This is difficult news for me to hear. First of all, how are you feeling? I’m going to need a few moments to gather my thoughts together before we talk.”

5. Lightheartedness
As they say, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Maintaining a sense of humor, especially during the teen years, might seem difficult. The truth is that while early teen sex, teen pregnancy, and STIs are serious issues, there is room for humor when it comes to parenting, teen dating, and relationships. Many parents will appreciate Arnold Glasgow’s remark, “Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.”

What these five traits highlight is the concept that being an approachable parent means being the type of parent you wanted as a teen. It’s really that simple!

This article was first published by Healthy Teen Network in “Under the Currents”, January, 2012

6 Things Parents Should Avoid When Guiding Teens About Sex


traffic-signs-674623_1280As an OB/GYN and an advocate for teen pregnancy and STD prevention, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interact with parents on the topic of teen sexual health.  Often, parents allow misperceptions and worries about what to say to their kids about sex become obstacles to effective communication.  As a parent, you want to be able to provide the very best guidance to your kids. The more knowledge you have, the more empowered you will feel.

The following points will help you to avoid sentiments that can interfere with your efforts to proactively and confidently parent your teen about sex.  Positive advice is given to replace unhelpful or even negative thinking and actions.  By changing your mind-set, you can become a more assured and capable parent.  That’s my goal and I know it’s your goal too.

1.  Don’t delay talking with your teens about sex, unintended pregnancy and STDs.    The time is now and you don’t have to feel daunted by the task.  Become an informed parent, while keeping an open mind and a sense of humor.  Also, remember your own teen years to help keep things in perspective.

2.  Don’t worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, or say too little or too much.               Trust your instincts and remember that you’ll have several opportunities to get your point across.  If you say something that you later regret, find the time to let your teen know what you really meant to get across.

3.  Don’t expect perfection or lose confidence in your ability                              Remember that you have already helped your child learn how to do all kinds of things, from using the potty to riding a bicycle to saying “please” and “thank you.” Communicating about sexual behavior and what your values are is another one of these important tasks—you can do it.

4.  Don’t underestimate the influence you have on your teen’s sexual behavior.    Parents often worry about the effect of peer pressure, but surveys by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reveal that parents have more influence on teen sexual behavior than their friends do.  This feeling was echoed by teens in the Pregnancy and STD Prevention Program that I led in Los Angeles.

5.  Don’t hesitate to use social networking sites and media to your advantage.                 Song lyrics, movies, and TV episodes often provide teachable moments. You can have a thoughtful conversation with your teen about sexuality, respect, commitment, and self-esteem based on things you’ve seen or heard in the media.  Facebook and Twitter posts can also offer a foundation for conversations with your teen about values and how he or she can best navigate the sexual landscape that they encounter growing up.

6.  Don’t assume you know what your teen is doing or whom they’re with.          The odds are you weren’t a perfect teen, so expecting perfection in your teen isn’t realistic.  Sometimes, parents assume that their kid is not having sex and are shocked when they learn that’s not the case.  You can simply ask your teen if they’ve thought about having sex.  This may allow you to pick up on possible reasons for concern.  And, never hesitate to pick up the phone and call to verify that an adult will be present at a friend’s house party.  Supervision, especially for very young teens, is an essential prevention measure against all types of risky behavior.