As if you needed another reason to be nervous when your teenager starts to date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 26% of women say they experienced intimate partner violence before age 18. How can you make sure your child, or a teenager you care about, doesn’t become part of that statistic? It’s important to know the warning signs of an abusive relationship, have open lines of communication, and provide plenty of resources.
Red flags of dating violence
Amy Johnston, LCSW, a therapist at Baptist Behavioral Health, has many years of experience counseling domestic violence victims and offenders. Unfortunately, she said dating violence really is prevalent in teen relationships.
“'Love Is Respect,' an organization focused on teen dating violence, says 9% of high school students reported being hit or slapped by their partner in the last month, which comes out to about 1.5 million teens. And the highest rates of domestic violence are in women between the ages of 16 and 24,” Johnston said.
She added that domestic violence against men often goes unreported and overlooked, so parents of sons and daughters alike should know how to spot a teen in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Warning signs of intimate partner abuse include:
- Extreme jealousy or insecurity
- Possessive or controlling behavior
- Pressure be intimate
- Belittling or demeaning behavior
- Invasions of privacy, like checking a partner’s phone, social media or emails without permission
- Isolation from friends or family
- Any physical violence
Johnston also pointed out that there are five different types of dating abuse in teens:
- Emotional, mental or psychological
- Technological or stalking
So, don’t just look for physical injuries, and don’t ignore less obvious (but equally dangerous) behaviors.
“We usually don't go around teaching our children about violence in relationships, and when we see things like jealousy or obsessiveness in teens, we have a tendency to blow it off as immaturity,” Johnston explained. “But a lot of the signs are the same with teens and adults. Someone could be monitoring their partner’s whereabouts and social media, hacking their accounts, threatening to spread personal information online or constantly calling and texting. Those are all forms of abuse.”
Even adults in unhealthy relationships may have difficulty realizing it, so how can you get through to your teen if you’ve noticed an abusive partner? If you think your child is in danger, coordinate with schools and law enforcement immediately to ensure his or her physical safety.
Johnston recommended starting a conversation with open, honest statements about what you’ve observed.
“You want to say things like, ‘I’m concerned for your safety. I’m concerned it will get worse. It’s not your fault.’ You definitely want to bring resources with you to that conversation so they know what’s available. Be gentle, and try not to judge or get angry because that could cause your child to isolate.”
To get the conversation started, you can use the definitions of healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships from On Our Sleeves, a national movement to provide resources and break stigmas around children’s mental health:
- In healthy relationships, you make decisions together and can openly discuss relationship problems. You enjoy time together but can also be happy apart.
- In unhealthy relationships, one person tries to make most of the decisions. He or she may try to pressure the partner about sex or refuse to admit hurtful actions. In an unhealthy relationship, you feel like you need to spend time with only your partner.
- In abusive relationships, one person is making all decisions – this includes friend groups, sexual choices and boundaries. The abuser’s goal is to have all the power and control. The victim may feel like he or she can’t talk to other people, especially about what’s really happening in the relationship.
Abuse-proof your teen
While parents and trusted adults can’t protect teens from everything, they can arm themselves with the information to recognize the warning signs and provide help when someone needs it.
“Be open and honest about what makes healthy and unhealthy relationships,” said Johnston. “Communicate with your teens about their relationships, and talk to them about breakups and conflicts. They should learn how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. Make sure they have a trustworthy adult to talk to, and that may not be a parent.”
Conversations like this are difficult to have. If you don’t know where to start, On Our Sleeves has resources to help. Sign up for the Wolfson Children’s On Our Sleeves monthly e-newsletter, which features timely, actionable resources for parents, caregivers and other concerned adults. If you need to speak to someone immediately, call the Wolfson Children’s 24/7 Kids & Teens Helpline at 904.202.7900 or text LIFE to 741741.