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 your child’s relationship is unhealthy or 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 experience the highest rate of violence from someone they’re dating. And many teens fail to report it. They’re either afraid, embarrassed, or both to admit 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 don’t 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, including:

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

Path to improved health

What should you look for?

The following signs may indicate 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 his or her grades have dropped.
  • Your child loses interest in activities once loved.
  • Your child is dressing differently. He or she begins wearing baggy clothing to hide his or her body.
  • Your child checks in with their partner frequently and returns messages right away.
  • 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 right away. Sometimes it’s better to hold back. A few tips:

  • Prepare before you bring it up.Do some research. Read about the qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships. That way you can talk to your child about them. You can help your child spot unhealthy or abusive behaviors in his or her relationship.
  • Find the right venue. Sitting your teen down at the dining room table to say, “We need to talk about something important,” may scare him or her into silence. Instead, find a casual place to chat. Start the conversation in a coffee bar, while you’re both watching TV, or even in the car. The casual setting may make your teen feel more comfortable. He or she may open up and share what’s going on. Keep in mind you may not be able to have an entire conversation at once. That’s okay. Just keep gathering information as you can.
  • Tell your child what you see. Gently point out some things you’ve noticed that are disturbing. For example, you could say something like, “I’ve noticed you seem 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.Let your teen take the lead in the conversation. It takes courage for him or her to tell you what’s going on. He or she may feel ashamed. Stress your child did nothing to deserve abuse. It may be hard but avoid the urge to jump in and solve.
  • Focus on the behaviors, not the person. Your child may or may not be ready to hear that his or her partner isn’t a good choice. And he or she may still feel attached. Speaking poorly about the partner may push your child away from you. Instead of focusing on the partner as a person, put the emphasis on the poor 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 he or she is telling you.
  • Create a plan of action with your teen. Ask your child what he or 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. Stress that abuse isn’t love.

  • If you feel your child is in imminent danger, consider contacting local law enforcement.
  • If there has been physical abuse, take your child to the doctor for treatment.
  • Have your child tell his or her partner over the phone they don’t want to see him or her anymore. Be close to offer support.
  • Your child should avoid contact with their former partner.
  • Encourage your child not to walk alone.
  • He or she should carry a cell phone at all times. Your child should have a code word you’re aware of that means he or she feels in danger.

When to see a doctor

If your teen continues with an unhealthy or abusive relationship, talk to your doctor for advice.

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 be abused?
  • Are there local crises centers that can help my child?
  • Should I get the school involved?


National Domestic Violence Hotline: Love Is Respect

National Sexual Violence Resource Center