Is Your Teen in an Abusive Relationship?

We want all the best for our teenagers. A happy, healthy relationship with a supportive partner is on our wish list. But what if you suspect her relationship is something other than healthy, even dangerous?

Unfortunately, teen dating violence is widespread. Experts predict that nearly one in three teenagers, both boys and girls, is a victim of abuse from a dating partner. Young women age 16-24 are the most at risk, as they experience the highest rate of violence from someone they’re dating. And many teens fail to report it. They’re either afraid or embarrassed (or both) to admit to anyone that they’re being abused. Some may not even realize it’s happening. To some teens, abuse can feel like love.

But excessive jealousy, controlling behaviors, and violence do not equal love. A truly loving relationship is one in which both partners feel respected and supported. They make decisions together. They have outside interests and relationships. And they settle disagreements by talking openly.

Abuse comes in many forms, not only slapping, hitting, or punching. Different types of abuse include:

  • Physical abuse: when a person touches you in a way you don’t want. Some examples could be scratching, punching, throwing something at you, or pulling your hair.
  • Verbal/emotional abuse: when a person tries to scare, isolate, or control you. Some examples could be yelling, name-calling, or embarrassing you.
  • Sexual abuse: any kind of sexual activity that you do not agree to. Some examples could be unwanted touching, kissing, or forcing you to have sex.

What should you look out for?

The following signs may indicate that your teen is in an unhealthy relationship:

  • Your child’s partner is extremely jealous or possessive.
  • Your child’s partner constantly puts them down.
  • Your child’s partner makes all the decisions.
  • Your child has stopped spending time with friends and family.
  • Your child has unexplained marks or bruises.
  • Your child seems overly anxious, or their grades have dropped.
  • Your child loses interest in activities they once loved.
  • Your child is dressing differently (wearing baggy clothing to hide their body).
  • Your child checks in with their partner frequently and returns messages immediately.
  • Your child worries how their partner will react in a given situation.
  • Your child blames themselves for how their partner acts.

Get your teen to talk

If you suspect your child is in an abusive relationship, you can help. But that doesn’t mean you should jump in and “fix” the situation straightaway. Sometimes it’s better to hold back. A few tips:

Prepare before you bring it up. Do a little research. Read about the qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships so you can talk to your child about them. You can help your child spot unhealthy or abusive behaviors in her relationship herself.

Find the right venue. Sitting your teen down at the dining room table to say, “We need to talk about something important,” may scare your teen into silence. Instead, find a casual place to chat. Starting to talk in a coffee bar, while you’re watching television together, or even in the car can make your teen feel more comfortable and more likely to open up. You may not be able to have an entire conversation at once. That’s okay. Just keep gathering information, even in bits and pieces.

Tell your child what you see. Gently, point out some of the things you’ve noticed that are disturbing. For example, say something like, “I’ve noticed that you seem unusually quiet lately. Is anything going on?” Or, “Lately, your grades have really been slipping. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”

Listen calmly and without judgment. Your child needs to know she’s heard. Avoid the urge to jump in and solve. Let your teen take the lead in the conversation. She may feel ashamed. Stress that this isn’t her fault. She did nothing to deserve any abuse and she did not ask for it. It took a lot of courage for her to tell you what’s going on. Give her lots of credit for it.

Focus on the behaviors, not the person. Your child may or may not be ready to hear that her partner is not a good choice. And she may still feel attached. Speaking poorly about her partner may push her away from you. And may make her feel like she has to defend her partner. Which is entirely the opposite of what you want to do. Instead of focusing on him as a person, put the emphasis on his actions. For instance, instead of saying, “He’s controlling,” say, “I don’t like that he doesn’t let you play in your band anymore.”

Believe what you hear. It may be torturous for your child to tell you what’s going on. Don’t make it worse by questioning or doubting. Offer unconditional support and acceptance. Tell your child you believe every word she’s telling you.

Create a plan of action with your teen. Ask your child what she thinks the next step should be. If it’s to leave the relationship, make sure you all have a safety plan in place. If your child’s partner is at the same school, speak to the guidance counselor or advisor to make sure everyone stays safe.

Things to consider

Safety is No. 1. Let your teen know that they do not deserve to be treated like this. Stress that this isn’t love. If you feel your child is in imminent danger consider getting local law enforcement involved. If there’s been physical abuse, take your child to the doctor for treatment. Have your child tell his or her partner over the phone that they do not want to see them anymore. Make sure you’re close by. Your child should avoid contact with this person from now on, and not walk around alone. He or she should carry a cell phone at all times and have a code word that you’re all aware of that means your child is in danger.

When to see a doctor

If your teen continues with an unhealthy or abusive relationship, seek professional help.

Questions for your doctor

  • As I describe the relationship, is my child in imminent danger?
  • Can you speak to my child to see what you think?
  • How can I get my daughter to break off her relationship?
  • Can boys really be abused?
  • Are there local crises centers that can help my child?
  • Should I get the school involved?


Love Is Respect

National Sexual Violence Resource Center