VICENZA, Italy -- The teen years are notorious for awkward dating and amateur romantic relationships. But as clumsy as they are, those first stabs at coupling up are super important as they lay the groundwork for patterns and expectations for relationships throughout adulthood.

Unfortunately, the early years are also a time when dating violence can begin -- and it's more widespread than you may think. In fact, one in three high school students experience some form of abuse from a dating partner.

So teens, parents of teens, and anyone who works with teens: February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Take the opportunity now to educate yourselves on how to prevent teen dating violence, and raise awareness so that others can do the same.

Teen dating violence covers the same ground as intimate partner violence in adult relationships. The violence can take the form of physical, emotional, verbal, financial, digital, sexual abuse or stalking. The difference is that the people involved are young -- very young.

According to one study, more than half of the men and women who report ever having experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, or stalking by a dating partner, had their first episodes between the ages of 11 and 24. The negative consequences go beyond setting teens up for a risk for future dating violence. Teens who have experienced abusive relationships are at a higher risk for suicide ideation and lower academic performance.

The good news is that everyone in the community can work together to help teens form healthy, productive relationships.

Educate yourselves about the types of dating violence and warning signs. Keep an eye on your friends and be there to lend a hand -- or a hint of clarity -- if they need it.

Dating abuse is about the perpetrator's need to have power and control over their partner. It has nothing to do with love and caring for another person. Learn about the characteristics of a healthy relationship and work actively to interact with all people in a positive way.

Parents, teachers, and other adults that care for teens: First and foremost, lead by example. Take a good look at your own relationships, romantic and non, and make sure you are setting a good example for respectful, honest, and empathic relationships. If there's room for improvement, now is a great time to work on making things better.

In addition, make space for open communication with the teens in your life. Talk to them about what a healthy relationship is before they start dating. Continue the conversation after the dating starts. Discuss and practice respectful conflict resolution, and make sure they know where to find help if they need it.

Finally, raise awareness for others in the schools and community at large so this topic is not pushed under the rug.

Look here for local and web resources on teen dating violence prevention and awareness:
- Teen dating violence prevention workshops sponsored by the Family Advocacy Program and offered through the Teen Center. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 22, 11:40 a.m.-12:10 p.m.

- Launching Hope workshops that help prepare parents to launch their teens into the wonderful world of adulthood. For parents of teens and preteens. Next workshop starts March 16. See the FMWR website, or call Army Community Service for more details.

- At Vicenza High School, there is a policy for addressing sexual harassment and bullying, but nothing specifically for teen dating violence. Let the high school staff know if you'd be interested in seeing a teen dating violence policy in future versions of the school handbook.

- Information for teens and parents
- Information for teens and parents

- Talking points for parents on how to talk to their teens about healthy relationships.

We all remember our first love. Let's do our part to make sure teens come out of those first magical -- and at times excruciating -- dating experiences stronger and with new healthy relationship skills to apply to their future dating adventures.

VanderBorght has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. She is an
expert in early cognitive development in children. She is also the
Child Development Specialist/Media Educator and Family Advocacy
Program Parent-Child Educator and Emergency Placement
Coordinator for U.S. Army Garrison Italy.