What Should You Do if Your Teenager is in an Abusive Relationship?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called teen dating abuse a serious problem in the United States. Research suggests that at least one in four adolescents experience verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during dates each year. Nearly one out of every 10 high school students say they’ve been physically hurt by someone they were dating.
I frequently hear from parents who are aware their teenager – often a daughter – is being abused by a date. For instance, Roberta revealed her concern about her 16-year-old daughter Elaine. “Elaine has been going out with a boy for several months,” Roberta explained, “and I know they’ve had many arguments. However, this boy has a terrible temper and he’s hit her more than once.
“She told me about him getting angry with her and hitting her, but when I told her she needed to break up with him Elaine said she tried but couldn’t do it. The boy always tells her he’s sorry and he says that if they break up he’ll kill himself because he can’t live without her. Elaine feels bad for him and always thinks things will get better.”
Roberta went on to say that Elaine has now stopped telling her about her boyfriend’s anger. “She probably knows I’ll tell her to stop going out with him,” Roberta said. “But I don’t know how I can help her at this point. I hate to think of her being abused and manipulated by her boyfriend.”
What both Elaine and Roberta are experiencing is not unusual. Dating abuse can include shoving and hitting, but can also take the form of yelling, name-calling, manipulation, and possessiveness. Often a date who is abusive can make the other person feel guilty if they try to break up with them.
When parents, like Roberta, try to intervene, they often are shut out as the teen begins to be more secretive about what’s really going on in the relationship. The reason for this, as Roberta discovered, is that the teen doesn’t want to be told they should break off the relationship. Furthermore, adolescents in an abusive relationship are embarrassed or ashamed about the abuse they’re experiencing — or they are convinced it is their fault they are being abused.
However, dating abuse has a negative and often long-lasting effect on individuals. Teenagers who are abused are more likely to do poorly in school. They may engage in unhealthy behaviors, like drug and alcohol use. Not infrequently, abused teens carry the patterns of violence into future relationships. Research indicates that abused teens are three times more likely than their non-abused peers to experience violence during college.
But what can parents do?
Prevention is always the best goal. You can promote healthy relationships while your child is growing up prior to adolescence. Prevention can start with you treating your child in a manner that promotes self-respect and self-esteem. Make sure your child grows up believing that no one has a right to hit or control her.
Throughout your child’s life, but especially during the adolescent years, listen to your child. Pay attention to what goes on in peer relationships and help her learn to be assertive and learn to avoid abusive relationships.
If you suspect your adolescent is in an abusive or violent relationship, let your child know you are there to help, not to judge. You can be helpful if you focus on your child and her feelings rather than on the person she is dating. Tell her you care about her and want to help, but don’t rush in to tell her what she should do. By quickly advising her to break up with an abuser places her in a conflict that may be difficult for her to resolve. She will feel torn between what you want her to do and what her abuser wants her to do.
Finally, be supportive of your teen’s decisions. However, if she chooses to continue to date an abuser, she may need to talk to someone who is more objective, such as a mental health professional.