As a parent, the scariest thing you can imagine is your child getting hurt. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among women and men who have experienced intimate partner violence, 26% of women and 15% of men first experienced violence by a partner before they turned 18.
One thing we can do to help protect our children is take steps to teach them about building safe, respectful relationships. Start by talking to your teens about what healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships look like and how to know when something isn't right. The signs of abuse can be subtle and teens might not recognize behaviors as unhealthy or abusive, so help them understand the warning signs. At home, you can model healthy behaviors in your own relationships and call out unhealthy and abusive behavior in relationships on TV. Lastly, remind your teens of their self-worth and value as their own, independent person.
What should you do if you suspect your teen is in an abusive relationship? You might feel angry, confused, protective, or scared. Your instinct may be to demand information or jump into the situation to help your child in whatever way you can. While well-intentioned, rushing into action can sometimes backfire and stop the conversation before it begins. Here are some ways you can help your teen if he or she is experiencing abuse.
Listen and Give Support
When talking to your teen, be supportive and don't make accusations. If they do open up to you, it's important to be a good listener. They may feel ashamed of what's happening in their relationship. Many teens fear that their parents will overreact, blame them, or be disappointed. Others worry that their parents won't believe them or understand. If they do come to you to talk, let it be on their terms, and meet them with understanding, not judgment. You might say something like, "It seems like you might be worried about something. Want to tell me about it?" Of course, if your teen is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to an emergency room.
Accept What Your Child Is Telling You
It's important to know that your teen might be experiencing physical or emotional abuse. Emotional abuse includes insulting or attempting to scare your partner in an attempt to wear down their self-worth and isolate them from their support systems. Abusers may tell their partners things like, "Nobody will believe you." Showing doubt, then, may reinforce that idea and make your teen hesitant to tell you when things are wrong in the future. It might also drive your teen closer to their abuser. Offer your unconditional support and make sure they know you are taking them seriously.
Show your teen concern by reminding them of how they deserve to be treated. Try saying things like, "You deserve to be with someone who treats you with respect," "This is not your fault," or "I'm worried that you feel scared and unsafe in your relationship."
Talk About the Behaviors, Not the Person
Since people who abuse seek to isolate their partners, your teen may be hearing things like, "Your parents hate me. They're trying to sabotage our relationship and control your life." Because of this, it is often more effective to speak to your child about specific behaviors you don't like, rather than being critical of the abusive partner or the relationship as a whole. For example, instead of saying, "Your partner is controlling," you could say, "It concerns me that they tell you who you can or can't text. In a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to talk to anyone they want." Remember that there still may be love in the relationship, and respect your child's feelings. Talking badly about your child's partner could discourage your teen from asking for your help in the future.
Resist the urge to give an ultimatum. For example, "If you don't break up with them right away, you're grounded." For a breakup to be truly successful, your teen must be ready to walk away from the relationship. If you force the decision, they may be tempted to return to their partner because of unresolved feelings. Also, leaving is the most dangerous time for those experiencing abuse. Trust that your teen knows their situation better than you do and will leave when they're ready. If they're not ready to leave the relationship, or if they do leave and then get back together many times, it's still important to be supportive. You can brainstorm ways they can stay safer in their relationship.
Decide on Next Steps Together
Creating a safety plan can help someone who is experiencing abuse feel prepared for different situations and be more independent when they are ready to leave the relationship. When you're talking to your teen about a safety plan, know that the decision has to come from your teen. Ask what next steps they would like to take. If they're uncomfortable discussing this with you, help them find additional support. Suggest that they reach out to a trusted friend, counselor, or advocate, and direct them to free and confidential resources for help.
As a parent, you play an important role in helping your teen develop healthy relationships and can provide life-saving support if they are in an abusive relationship.