According to an article in Medical News Today, there was a new study posted in the journal Child Development that shows "teenagers with close friendships tend to be more adaptive to stress, report being happier due to an increased feeling of uniqueness, and are likely to do better academically. Additionally, they have high self-esteem and are more assertive." This probably isn't earth-shattering news to you, because I'm sure adults could say, "SAME." Human beings have a better quality of life, feel more hopeful, connected and a sense of purpose when they are in healthy relationships--romantic, family, friends, etc.
Over the last five years, I've had the honor to work with youth who have been victims of human trafficking, and a key to both helping to prevent victims and a key to healing is healthy relationships. It's such a significant part of our lives, and yet is also one of the most complicated and potentially hurtful parts of our lives as well. My hope is to talk a little bit about what healthy/unhealthy relationships have to do with human trafficking and how you, as a parent, can engage with your teen on this topic.
When it comes to the topic of sex trafficking, it is easy for parents to slide to one extreme or another. One extreme is the insulated mindset that sounds like, "We live in a safe neighborhood, go to a strong church, I know all of my child's friends--there's no way anything like that could ever happen to us." The other extreme is more of a fear-based mindset that might sound like, "My child might get taken from me at the grocery store or even from our front yard." Certainly the headlines we see, articles we read, social media posts we scroll, and stories we hear from friends and family feed into these mindsets in one way or another.
Of course, as parents, we hope that our children avoid being a victim of such a heinous crime. A 2019 study from the University of Cincinnati identified that in Ohio, each year, about 1,032 youth are sexually exploited. EACH YEAR. But knowing the vulnerabilities, red flags, and providing some protective factors for your children can help reduce these numbers.
Traffickers Don't Discriminate
In my field of work and ministry, we always say, "Traffickers don't discriminate." Traffickers will target those from low-income, under-educated, single-parent households, as well as targeting those from more affluent two-parent households in a more affluent environment. Believing that traffickers only target "certain types of people" is a myth we need to educate against. It's also sometimes surprising when people learn that a trafficker can be male or female, 65 or 25 or 15 years of age. One of the most common ways youth are trafficked is by a boyfriend or girlfriend (second only to familial trafficking).
That being said, there is one prominent commonality among traffickers and their potential victims: vulnerability. Traffickers look for vulnerabilities in potential victims that they can exploit. Common vulnerabilities for teenagers include lack of feeling loved, not fitting in at school, feeling that parents are too busy to notice them, or the desire for nice things that their family cannot afford (or being in a family who cannot provide for even basic needs), and curiosity or addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Needing to belong, be accepted, love--these are the needs of every human being--and when these needs aren't met through healthy relationships and loving people, it leaves an open door for traffickers to swoop in and pretend to care, accept, and love.
Adding the presence of internet use to any of these vulnerabilities creates space for traffickers to find and exploit possible victims. In fact, three out of four victims are trafficked online. Traffickers seek to make victims feel a false sense of relational security and safety through fake personas online. This type of online trafficking includes gaming sites and social media.
The Role of Healthy Relationships
As beings created in the image of triune God, we are created for community. We are created to feel connected to other people. Because of this need, it is so important that the relationships we have in our lives are healthy, loving, genuine, and Biblical. Our relationships deeply affect the way we view ourselves, what we believe others think of us, our self-worth, and our actions.
These truths are significant because developmentally, middle schoolers moving into adolescence are continuously growing in independence and autonomy from their family. They are beginning to explore more and more, "What do I believe? What do I want to do? What kind of person am I? What group do I fit in?"
Additionally, it's in the teenage years that being accepted by our peers is crucial to development and self-worth. Dating relationships and peer relationships carry such a weight for teens as they grapple with their independence from their family system and in forming their identity. This is a major reason it is so important for middle schoolers to know the qualities of healthy relationships and learn to implement boundaries and good communication skills.
Determining Healthy Relational Boundaries
I would venture to guess that parents have had or know they should have talks with their pre-teens and teens about physical boundaries--related to dating relationships. It's possible that parents are less likely to talk to their children about emotional boundaries. I don't think it's because parents don't think it's valuable, but it's also more muddy and complex than "no kissing on the first date." Navigating emotional and relational boundaries isn't as black and white. A good starting point would be for parents to first assess their own relational boundaries, asking questions like:
- What kind of relational boundaries am I modeling?
- What boundaries do I have with my own friends, family members, and social media?
- Why do I have the boundaries that I do?
As parents assess their own boundaries, they can more naturally engage their middle schoolers in similar conversations.
It's worth-while for parents to discuss with their maturing tweens what it looks like when people hold fluid relational boundaries, like:
- What happens if I make myself available to my friends and family all hours of the day and night?
- How does it impact me when I let people talk to me however they want to?
- If I don't stand up for myself, how does that affect me and how people treat me in relationships?
The other side of this conversation is considering what it means if someone holds very rigid boundaries ("I don't trust people; i'm never going to talk about my feelings with anyone" or "I'm going to demand that my friends go eat where I want to eat and hang out where I want to hang out"). What kind of impact would these rules and rigidness have on others? How is this loving people well?
I think it's a helpful approach, as a parent and as an adult who works with adolescents, to ask questions from a curious stance--not a judgmental "I already know the answers for you" stance. When talking with your middle schooler about the dynamics of a friendship or romantic relationship, position yourself as a learner of that relationship:
- How do you two handle conflict when you disagree?
- How does it make you feel when she yells at you?
- When one of your friends gets mad at another friend of yours, how do you navigate that? Do you feel pressured by one or both of them to take sides?
- How did you respond in that situation?
- Tell me more about that...
All of these questions and discussion points are aimed at helping parents engage their pre-teens and teens in constructive dialogue about their relationships. We want them to wrestle through the complexities of being in relationships with others. We want the Lord to refine them as he leads them in loving others the way he instructs us in his Word. We want to guide them through the ups and downs of being in relationships with others--and recognize that we don't always have the answers ourselves--and that's ok! We'll all keep growing in it together!