You’re a good parent. You do the best you can! You are trying to make sure your children have everything they want and need within appropriate boundaries. And you are suspecting that your teen is dealing with an abusive dating partner. Before you blame yourself or wonder what went wrong, let me share some information that may prove helpful in navigating this life experience that is far too common.
First, let’s define teen dating violence. Essentially, it is the same as domestic violence or abuse in a relationship. The first thought many people have is physical violence such as hitting, shoving, or slapping. This is only one aspect of domestic violence. Relationship abuse is a pattern of behavior that one uses with the intention to gain power and control over their partner. Power and control can be derived by
- Jealous behaviors
- Demanding access into social media
- Going through their partner’s phone
- Manipulating feelings and thoughts
- Coercing (sexually)
- Gaslighting (making the partner feel “stupid” or doubt their reality)
- Putting the partner down
- Criticizing or making their partner feel bad
- Pushing for sexual photos
- Isolating the partner from their friends and family
- Turning people against the partner
- Threatening or killing the partner
Our teens across all financial, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or social demographics are facing these issues in their lives. Here are some things you can do to intervene whether the abuse is slight or severe:
1. Get comfortable talking to your teen without shaming them. It is understandable if you feel uneasy talking with your teen about dating or teen dating violence. At the end of the day, most typically-developing children grow into people who want to explore intimate or romantic relationships. And your teen has you to help guide them! Validate your teen’s desire to explore these types of relationships without shaming them. Focus on the positive aspects of dating such as learning how to establish boundaries with others, or getting to learn what they like or don’t like in dating partners, or getting to know oneself.
2. Be a source of GOOD information: Teens are learning about relationships from music, favorite shows, and movies, older siblings and cousins, and even from their friends. What you can do is draw from your own wisdom of how healthy relationships work or consume information about how to have healthy teen partnerships and be ready to affirm their worthiness of healthy relationships. Out of all the messages they are getting, teens are willing to listen to messages that are not manipulative and come from someone by whom they feel respected!
3. Ask soliciting questions: Your intention behind asking your teen about their dating partner is meant to help you know to what extent you need to intervene. It is also intended to get your teen thinking for themselves about what is needed in a relationship. Here are some questions to ask. “How does your partner handle conflict with you?” “Are there times you feel afraid of your partner?” “Do you ever feel as though you have to walk on egg shells in order to not upset your partner?” “What would happen if you do something your partner does not like?”
If you detect there might be some abuse, here is the NEXT STEP: focus on the ISSUE at hand and NOT the partner. For example, if you find out your teen’s partner is jealous, do not attack their partner’s character. This can confuse your teen and further serve to influence our teen to feel isolated from you. Talk about the issue at hand: jealousy. Talk about how jealousy is unhealthy, or how it makes your teen feel when it happens, or the fact that your teen deserves to be in a relationship without jealousy.
4. Don’t push: In other words, do not try to control your teen or force them out of the relationship. Yes, this seems counterintuitive. You may be thinking, “If my teen is being abused, I want them out of that relationship NOW!” Consider this before you decide your intervention. A person who is being abused is used to being told what to think, feel, say, and do all the time. Being controlled by one more person adds pressure and further isolates them from you, their supportive family. It can be helpful to express that you want them to be safe and you support the decisions they make. Give them a little bit of trust that they will make healthy decisions and let them know you will be there for them in time of need. Please read the next paragraph.
HOWEVER, in the event of severe abuse where a threat to their physical safety is SUSPECTED, or in situations where your teen’s life is at risk, you are more than encouraged to seek stronger interventions. You can contact emergency or crisis services such as the police, local domestic violence agency, national hotline, or your court for protective or no contact orders. You have every right to protect your teen from eminent danger.
5. Be prepared with resources: learn about your local domestic violence agencies, legal protection resources, or other therapeutic services in your area including therapists who are knowledgeable of domestic or teen dating violence. There are support groups, healing groups, one-on-one therapy, assistants to help with protective or no contact orders, safe shelters, crisis counselors who are able to help you make a plan to be safe when fleeing severely threatening partners, and many more. Some of these resources listed below can be for your teen some can help you as you support your teen. You can explore and share options with your teen and help them decide which is best for them.
6. Trust yourself: If you feel something is not right in your gut, your spirit, or instinct, then trust that. I have worked with pre-teens, teen, and adults concerning domestic violence and one thing I communicate often is that if your senses are telling you there is danger, even where there is NO EVIDENCE of danger, trusts it and seek help. You and your teen deserve to feel safe. You can help your teen through this time. And always, always do what is safe!