Unhealthy teen relationships may still need room to grow

Navigating a teen's love life can be terrifying territory for parents, especially when there are signs they're in an unhealthy relationship.

'They really do want to talk about it,' says Kelvin High School guidance counsellor

Janus Bazan is the guidance counsellor department head at Kelvin High School. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Emily Bernardin may only be 19 years old, but she knows a thing or two about love, and what it's like to be in an unhealthy relationship.

"I had some bad experiences, but I've grown from them," said Bernardin, who credits her mother for giving her room to grow.

"My mom knew [about the bad relationship]. We talked about it a lot and she knew she couldn't make me do anything. She was just there for me through the whole thing, and watched as it fell apart," said Bernardin.

Guidance counsellors at Kelvin High School watch things fall apart and get put back together on a daily basis. For counsellors such as Janus Bazan, it comes with an understanding of how formative and intense the high school years can be.

"For some adults, it's a little difficult to imagine that somebody at 15 or 16 can actually love, but it's so strong. It's there," said Bazan.

There are often warning signs when that teen love goes wrong enough to give parents cause for concern. A teen might drastically change their physical appearance, begin isolating themselves or suddenly stop eating or sleeping, she said.

When a teen comes to Bazan about a troubled relationship, she encourages them to talk about what it means to be in a healthy one.

"We try to help the students who come to us identify the values that are really important to them — values in friendship and then even dating relationships — then work towards trying to make sure that's what happens to them," said Bazan.

Forbidding teens doesn't help

While students in Bazan's office are encouraged to think about values, parents may be more inclined to demand them and forbid their teen from continuing an unhealthy relationship.

It wouldn't have worked.  I would have just lied more.- Emily Bernardin

Looking back, Bernardin said she would not have listened to her mother if she was told to stay away.

"It wouldn't have worked. [The relationship] would have been secret and I would have just lied more," said Bernardin.

Regardless of how a parent responds to their teen's unhealthy relationship, Bazan outlines the importance of keeping an open dialogue. In her experience, teens often want to reach out but need a safe place to share their experiences.

"They really do want to talk about it. There's a reason why they're in an unhealthy relationship and, whatever that is, it's good to come to that first and understand it. It's really important to understand their perspective ... then understanding that helps you move forward," said Bazan.

At Kelvin High School, counsellors have a case load of about 350 students; they see most of them at least one time during their high school years. Career counselling is the most typical reason for a visit to the guidance counsellor's office, but often students will linger in the doorway and ask if they can talk about other things in their lives.

Parents integral

In the last five years, Bazan said she has only dealt with a handful of students she would identify as being in very unhealthy relationships. Yet even in those, parents had an important role to play.

"I have found in the cases where I worked with really unhealthy relationships, the parent has been an integral member of that team to help support that child. They may not have been at the start of it, but at some point the parent was there," said Bazan.

As for Bernardin, the experience of an unhealthy relationship affirmed what she might have already known.

"I learned that in the very beginning if there's some things you don't like about someone there are probably going to be more things you don't like about them, and they're probably just going to get worse. So listen to your gut," said Bernardin.

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