Emotional Well-Being|Family Health|Kids and Teens|Prevention and Wellness
abuse|Physical Abuse|relationships|teenager

Is Your Teen in an Abusive Relationship?

Last Updated August 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

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 aged 16-24 experience the highest rate of violence from someone they’re dating. And many teens fail to report it. They’re afraid or embarrassed 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?

Your teen may be in an unhealthy relationship if they:

  • Have a partner who is extremely jealous or possessive, constantly puts them down and makes all of the decisions.
  • Have stopped spending time with friends and family.
  • Have unexplained marks or bruises.
  • Seem overly anxious, or their grades have dropped.
  • Lose interest in activities once loved.
  • Are dressing differently. They begin wearing baggy clothing to hide their body.
  • Check in with their partner frequently and return messages right away.
  • Worry how their partner will react in a given situation.
  • Blame 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 try to 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 them 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. They 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 them to tell you what’s going on. They may feel ashamed. Stress that they 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 their partner isn’t a good choice. And they 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 hard 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 they are telling you.
  • Create a plan of action with your teen. Ask your child what they think 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. Other tips to consider include:

  • 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 their partner over the phone they don’t want to see them anymore. Be close to offer support.
  • Your child should avoid contact with their former partner.
  • Encourage your child not to walk alone.
  • Your teen should always carry a cell phone. They should have a code word you’re aware of that means they feel 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

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