How Do I know if My Teen is in an Abusive Relationship?

Tzipporah Gerson-Miller LCSW C-IAYT

Having any kind of suspicion that your teen may be in an unhealthy relationship can be extremely alarming. Not knowing how to spot definitive signs of abuse can be frustrating and lead to feelings of helplessness. If you know your teen is in an abusive relationship and you aren’t sure how to support them or what resources are available, it can leave you feeling powerless and isolated. According to the CDC, 1.5 million high school students experience dating violence from a dating partner in a single year. Not only can intimate partner violence be traumatic, it can be life-threatening.

Knowing how to identify early warning signs of an abusive relationship and what to do can be the best way to help your teen.

1.     Your child’s partner seems extremely jealous or possessive. Wanting to know where your partner is and who they are with is normal to a certain extent. However, if you notice that your teen’s partner is calling or texting excessively and wanting to know your teen’s whereabouts 24/7, that’s a good indicator that they are jealous and possessive.

2.     Your child begins to dress differently. Abuse is all about power and control. Parents often get to know their child’s typical patterns, tastes, and habits. If your teen used to like to wear certain clothing and suddenly wants an entirely new wardrobe, this may be a red flag that their partner is trying to control their behavior.

3.     Your teen loses interest in their usual activities and extracurricular activities. While loss of interest and motivation can be a sign of depression, if your teen is spending more and more time with their significant other and less time engaged in their usual activities, it can indicate that your teen’s partner is trying to manipulate their actions and decisions.

4.     Your teen spends less and less time with their friends or family. Isolation is a major tactic that abusers use so that a person will become more and more dependent upon them for love and self-acceptance. If you notice that your teen is turning down invitations to parties or other gatherings to spend time with their partner, their partner could be trying to control their social interactions.

5.     You notice that your teen seems depressed or anxious. It’s normal for a teen’s mood to fluctuate to some extent. We all have bad days and we all feel stressed out from time to time. If you notice changes in your teen’s sleep patterns, appetite, interest in social activities, self-esteem,  or any evidence of self-harm (i.e. cutting), or expressed feelings of hopelessness and guilt, your teen might be the victim of emotional abuse.

5 Ways to Support Your Teen If They Are In An Abusive Relationship

As a parent, your instinct is to protect your child. Sometimes the emotionally desire to protect your child from harm can undermine your ability to approach the situation calmly and skillfully. Here are some tips on how to navigate this difficult situation with your child.

1. Listen without judgment. It’s best to listen calmly and to assure them that it’s not their fault. Many teens feel ashamed that this is happening in their relationship and often are afraid that their parents will be angry or disappointed. Being supportive means taking time to understand their needs and practicing patience. People need time to process their feelings before taking action. Active, non-judgmental listening is a beautiful way to strengthen your relationship with your child.

2. Believe what your teen is telling you. If someone feels ashamed or scared about what is happening to them, having the courage to tell someone is a huge step. Acknowledging and validating their story unconditionally is a way of communicating trust. If your teen suspects that you don’t believe them, they will be hesitant to come to you for help in the future.

3. Don’t force them to leave the relationship. This circles back to wanting to protect them. It’s normal to want to start controlling their behavior in order to protect them. This may cause them to return to their abuser. Leaving the abuser can also increase their risk of harm.

4. Educate Yourself. Being able to identify the components of a healthy relationship can help you to facilitate a conversation with your teen so they can be better equipped to spot red flags and identify unhealthy behaviors.

5. Decide and collaborate on a plan of action together. Show genuine interest in knowing how your teen wants to handle the situation. Acknowledge their feelings, gather their input, listen empathically, and provide supportive feedback. If they don’t want to discuss it with you, don’t take it personally. Help them find support.

Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., Walling, M., & Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(2017) Get Help for Someone Else: Help My Child. Retrieved from: http//:www.loverespect.org

If you suspect that your teen may be in an abusive relationship, do not hesitate to seek support. Knowing where resources exist in your community can save someone’s life.  The Shalom Bayit Program at JF&CS offers counseling and support groups for victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in their families or relationships. Counselors are available to see children, adolescents, teens, and adults. Please contact (770) 677-9322

Other resources include:

Georgia Domestic Violence and 24-hour Crisis Line, including access to emergency shelter: 1-800-HAVEN

National Domestic Violence 24 Hour Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474

Posted in JF&CS - Hope and Opportunity Happen Here, Counseling Services