The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to ensure your child will have healthy relationships

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The story of L.Y. Marlow is one of heartbreak and hope. She comes from a family of four generations of women who “suffered and survived 60 years of domestic violence.” When she realized almost seven years ago that her daughter, a mother to a 6-month-old, was being abused by the baby’s father, Marlow quit her job as a project executive at IBM and launched a domestic violence prevention organization called Saving Promise. Promise is the name of her now 7-year-old granddaughter.

The organization aims to decrease partner violence and increase awareness of it, “so that we can ultimately change what the CDC calls a national crisis,” Marlow said.

She was abused by her first boyfriend. “My mother didn’t allow us to date until we were 16, and my first boyfriend, who I was in love with, was very charming,” she said. “I quickly learned that a lot of that charm and connection I thought we had easily transferred into behaviors of control and escalated into physical abuse.”

And so Marlow, also the author of “Color Me Butterfly,” a novel inspired by her experience, and “A Life Apart,” a novel about a decades long love affair, is working to make sure other teens and adults do not end up in a situation like her family’s. “Parents must talk about it,” she said. “We’ve got to be willing to address the sensitive issues. … We’ve got to ask our kids what they think dating is.”

Robyn Brickel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Town Alexandria, who has been working with Saving Promise, said parents should start talking to children early to help ensure that they end up with healthy relationships later. “They say so-and-so has cooties, and you talk about how you treat people,” she said. “That’s where the conversations begin.”

Talks about relationships don’t have to be serious sit-downs when the time comes for dating, Brickel said. Instead, “repetition is the best way to learn. If we’re repeating the same information differently throughout their lives, it’s going to be taken in.”

Finally, she said, work to make sure you and your children have a secure, open relationship. Take them seriously and don’t say things like “Oh, it’s just a little eighth-grade relationship,” so they will be more apt to talk to you.

Other tips from Brickel:

* Make your home one where kids can have dinner and hang out. That way, you’re going to have the option of seeing relationships. And if all of a sudden your child doesn’t want to bring someone over, that may be a not-great sign.

* If friends of your child don’t like their boyfriend/girlfriend, that’s a big tell.

* If your child suddenly starts thinking differently, or doing things differently, you need to pay attention.

* Be curious. Ask questions as straightforward as, “How are things going with Johnny?” It can start a conversation, or show you where they may be issues to deal with.

* Make sure kids know — and this is one of those things that you can develop over time — that healthy relationships are about respect. No pressure, no control.

* Let them know this is supposed to be fun. The hard stuff shouldn’t come until later.

* Resources are available. Be aware that if you need help, there is help.