Helping Teens Break Up Abusive Relationships

February is not just when we celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s also National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month, and I have received lots of questions about what parents can do to reduce the risk that their teen will engage in an unhealthy relationship. 

Teen dating violence is not just about physical violence.  It can also involve being yelled at, put down, threatened, or being over-controlled or bullied by a partner. It is also not a rarity: one in 10 teens say they experience physical violence in a dating relationship. If you include threats and emotional abuse, those numbers are   even higher. 

It is also important to know that teen dating violence occurs to teens from all cultures and income levels and is not limited to families with a history of violence. It is not just about girls – boys as well can be victims. And violence can occur in any type of relationship and at any time in the relationship.

Sadly many teens do not talk about the violence they experience in a relationship because they are embarrassed, feel it is their fault or don’t even realize it is abuse.  They worry they will be forced to break up or will lose friends or will be left alone without friends.  Many feel things can only get better if they change their partner’s behavior, which is usually not going to happen.

How can you tell your teen is being victimized?  You may see their grades start to go down. They may appear more anxious or depressed or avoid eye contact. They may have bruises or scratches that are not easily explained, have trouble eating or sleeping, or turn to tobacco, alcohol and other risk-taking drugs.

So what can parents do? They can start early by teaching children about respect –both for self and others – even before your child is interested in a romantic relationship with someone.  Allow your child to talk about what’s going on without interrupting, except to say you are there to help and not to judge. Focus on your child’s safety and self-esteem.   

It is important to reinforce that you care about what happens to your teen and love him or her and want to help, that the abuse is not their fault, and that they are not to blame no matter how guilty they are made to feel.  If your teen doesn’t want to talk with you, suggest talking with another adult they trust.  Another family member or adult family friend, school counselor, teacher, or their health care provider can be helpful.

If your teen does want to break up the unhealthy relationship, develop a safety plan with them ahead of time (such as always traveling with a friend or even having them change course schedules at school ) and be supportive of that decision, stressing how important it is for that breakup to be definite and final.     

Hopefully tips like this will be easy ones to relate to when it comes to helping your teen deal with a potentially abusive relationship.