Knowing or even suspecting that your child is in an unhealthy relationship can be both frustrating and frightening. But as a parent, you’re critical in helping your child develop healthy relationships and can provide life-saving support if they are in an abusive relationship. Remember, dating violence occurs in both same-sex and opposite-sex couples and any gender can be abusive.
What Do I Need to Know?
You can look for some early warning signs of abuse that can help you identify if your child is in an abusive relationship before it’s too late. Some of these signs include:
- Your child’s partner is extremely jealous or possessive.
- You notice unexplained marks or bruises.
- Your child’s partner emails or texts excessively.
- You notice that your child is depressed or anxious.
- Your child stops participating in extracurricular activities or other interests.
- Your child stops spending time with other friends and family.
- Your child’s partner abuses other people or animals.
- Your child begins to dress differently.
What Can I Do?
As a parent, your instinct is to help your child in whatever way you can. This need to help can drive you to quickly react, but sometimes what feels like the right plan of action could stop the conversation before it begins. Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying to help a child who is experiencing dating abuse:
Listen and give support
When talking to your teen, be supportive and non-accusatory. Let your child know that it’s not their fault and no one “deserves” to be abused. If they do open up, it’s important to be a good listener. Your child may feel ashamed of what’s happening in their relationship. Many teens fear that their parents may overreact, blame them or be disappointed. Others worry that 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.
Accept what your child is telling you
Believe that they are being truthful. Your child may be reluctant to share their experiences in fear of no one believing what they say. Showing skepticism could make your teen hesitant to tell you when things are wrong and drive them closer to their abuser. Offer your unconditional support and make sure that they know you believe they are giving an accurate account of what is happening.
Let your teen know that you are concerned for their safety by saying things like: “You don’t deserve to be treated like this;” “You deserve to be in a relationship where you are treated with respect” and “This is not your fault.” Point out that what’s happening isn’t “normal.” Everyone deserves a safe and healthy relationship.
Talk about the behaviors, not the person
When talking about the abuse, speak about the behaviors you don’t like, not the person. For example, instead of saying, “She is controlling” you could say, “I don’t like that she texts you to see where you are.” Remember that there still may be love in the relationship — respect your child’s feelings. Also, talking badly about your son or daughter’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/you won’t be allowed to date anyone in the future.”) You want your child to truly be ready to walk away from the relationship. If you force the decision, they may be tempted to return to their abusive partner because of unresolved feelings. Also, leaving is the most dangerous time for victims. Trust that your child knows their situation better than you do and will leave when they’re ready.
Educate yourself on dating abuse. Help your child identify the unhealthy behaviors and patterns in their relationship. Discuss what makes a relationship healthy. With your teen, identify relationships around you (within your family, friend group or community) that are healthy and discuss what makes those relationships good for both partners.
Decide on next steps together
When you’re talking to your teen about a plan of action, know that the decision has to come from them. 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 peer advocate through loveisrespect’s phone line, online chat and text messaging service where teens can talk with peer advocates 24/7. To call, dial 1-866-331-9474, chat via our website or text “loveis” to 22522.
But My Child Isn’t in an Unhealthy Relationship
It’s never too early to talk to your child about healthy relationships and dating violence. Starting conversations — even if you don’t think your child is dating — is one of the most important steps you can take to help prevent dating violence. Here are some sample questions to start the conversation:
- Are any of your friends dating? What are their relationships like? What would you want in a partner?
- Have you witnessed unhealthy relationships or dating abuse at school? How does it make you feel? Were you scared?
- Do you know what you would do if you witnessed or experienced abuse?
- Has anyone you know posted anything bad about a friend online? What happened afterwards?
- Would it be weird if someone you were dating texted you all day to ask you what you’re doing?
Need more tips to get started? Here are some other ways you can prepare to talk to your child about healthy and unhealthy relationships:
- Do your own research on dating abuse to get the facts before talking to your teen or 20-something. Start with the information and resources on loveisrespect.org.
- Provide your child with examples of healthy relationships, pointing out unhealthy behavior. Use examples from your own life, television, movies or music.
- Ask questions and encourage open discussion. Make sure you listen to your son or daughter, giving them a chance to speak. Avoid analyzing, interrupting, lecturing or accusing.
- Keep it low key. Don’t push it if your child is not ready to talk. Try again another time.
- Be supportive and nonjudgmental so they know they can come to you for help if their relationship becomes unhealthy in the future.
- Admit to not knowing the answer to a particular question. This response builds trust.
- Reinforce that dating should be fun! Stress that violence is never acceptable.
- Discuss the options your child has if they witness dating abuse or experience it themselves.
- Remind your son or daughter they have the right to say no to anything they’re not comfortable with or ready for. They also must respect the rights of others.
- If your child is in a relationship that feels uncomfortable, awkward or frightening, assure them they can come to you. And remember — any decisions they make about the relationship should be their own.
- Find ways to discuss gender equality at A Call to Men.
- Contact Break the Cycle to find out if there are dating violence prevention programs in your community. If not, work with Break the Cycle to bring abuse prevention to your local school or community group.