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Your teen has a new relationship. She talks about her new boyfriend constantly but you think something is off. You don’t feel comfortable but aren’t sure if you should interfere. If you do, you worry that it will cause your teen to pull away from you.
Teens aren’t always ready for dating. They don’t have the experience to know whether certain behaviors are wrong or how to tell someone to stop when something makes them uncomfortable. They might worry that they will be dumped or ostracized and resist telling anyone about abusive or controlling behaviors. The abuse, especially emotional abuse, might start out so slowly that the teen doesn’t know it is happening. Teen violence is more common than you think. One in three teens will experience physical aggression in a romantic relationship, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). And only about one-third of them will ever tell anyone about the abuse.
Girls are most often the victim of dating violence, with women between the ages of 16 and 24 experiencing the highest rate of relationship violence. But men can also be victims, especially of emotional abuse and manipulation. Dating violence also occurs in same-sex relationships. According to the DOJ, dating violence can have long-term consequences, leading to substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders and risky sexual behaviors. Victims are also at a higher risk of being abused in later relationships.
Even though many teens don’t talk about dating violence, there are warning signs.
Jealousy and possessiveness are classic signs of an abusive relationship. Some of the ways this shows up include:
- Needs to “check in” to let her partner know where she is at all times. Partner becomes upset if she doesn’t text back immediately.
- Withdrawing from other friends because partner doesn’t like them.
- Partner wants to limit who she spends time with and what she does.
- Starts changing appearance — wearing a different style of clothes or sporting a new hairstyle — because partner thinks she looks better this way or because her partner wants her to dress more modestly and not show off her body.
Controlling behaviors are ways in which a partner increases someone’s dependence on him. These types of behaviors include:
- Making fun of, criticizing, or insulting the other person.
- Telling someone how to act.
- Using emotional manipulation, such as “No one else will love you like I do” or “I only want you to act/dress like this because I love you and want you to improve” or “If you love me you would do this.”
You might also notice your teen and her partner having frequent fights or your teen worrying that “he will be mad at me.”
In addition to your teen’s partner’s behaviors, you might notice changes in your teen, such as:
- Being critical of himself or downplaying achievements and accomplishments.
- Being irritable for no known reason.
- Showing signs of depression including a change in appetite, more or less sleep, not taking care of daily hygiene.
- Suddenly making changes in appearance or interests.
- An increase in the need for privacy or keeping secrets.
- Signs of nervousness when her partner is around.
Pay attention to any unexplained bruises, scratches, or other injuries. Wearing long sleeves in warm weather, using extra makeup, or hiding parts of her body might be indicative that she is hiding signs of physical abuse.
What parents can do
If you suspect that your teen is in an abusive relationship, either emotional or physical, talk to her. Listen to what she has to say without being judgmental. Be sure your teen knows that you trust and believe her and do not believe that she is at fault. Remind her that her safety is your first concern.
Ask her what she wants to have happen next and discuss ways that you can support her in making that happen. Your teen might feel guilt or loyalty toward her partner or be worried about her partner’s reaction if she breaks up with him. Be supportive.
Contact a local domestic violence center or a national hotline for help if needed. Do not be afraid to contact the police if your teen is being harmed or threatened with harm. Take these actions and threats seriously.
Keep the lines of communication open with your teen. If you overstep and try to rescue your teen, blame her for the abuse, or criticize the partner before they are ready to leave, you might drive her further away. But be ready to intervene if your teen is in danger.