National studies show that about 1 in 10 teens have experienced physical or sexual abuse from a romantic partner and 3 in 10 have dealt with psychological abuse. In our own recent Student Health 101 survey, 37 percent of respondents said they suspected that a friend was in some form of abusive or unhealthy relationship.
“Relationship abuse can include any behaviors where someone is trying to create and maintain control over their partner,” says Kristen Parks, senior trainer and curriculum development specialist at Green Dot, etc., a nonprofit program that aims to prevent violence in school communities.
Green Dot, etc. gathers students from different social groups and teaches them how to be “active bystanders,” which involves using subtle moves to create social change. This often involves using distraction rather than confrontation, and having open conversations about respect rather than turning a blind eye to a friend’s unhealthy behavior. It’s about turning “red dots” (violent or risky situations) into “green dots” (safe ones), and it’s proving to be effective. In a 2014 study conducted by the University of Kentucky, students reported a 40 percent drop in dating violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and stalking at schools that had received Green Dot, etc. training.
Is your teen in an unhealthy relationship?
It’s not always easy to tell, but if they’ve spoken to you about experiencing any of the issues below, they might be.
- They seem very anxious to please or are afraid of their partner.
- They talk about their partner acting jealous and possessive or embarrassing and insulting them.
- Your teen can’t make plans with friends without their partner getting angry, acting controlling, or trying to interfere.
- They bombard your teen’s phone to find out where they are and what they’re doing, or your teen feels like they have to constantly check in.
- Your teen has witnessed their partner act out aggressively, throwing things around or breaking something.
- Your teen has become withdrawn, anxious, more self-conscious, or is acting depressed since being with this partner.
- Your teen’s partner has threatened to commit suicide if the relationship ends.
- Their partner has done (or has threatened to do) something to damage your teen’s reputation (e.g., share a sexual photo or video).
- Your teen has told you or you’ve seen evidence that their boyfriend or girlfriend is physically forceful. Even if it’s nothing that will leave a mark, things like grabbing someone’s wrist to prevent them from leaving or holding them against a wall fall under the category of abuse.
- Your teen’s partner posts their dirty laundry on social media (e.g., screenshots of their text messages or angry status updates).
If you think your teen is dealing with an unhealthy relationship:
- You might think of it as puppy love, but if your teen is dating, they’ve probably experienced strong emotions and real feelings of attachment. Don’t downplay their feelings.
- Focus on keeping the line of communication open. You might be tempted to try and force them to end their relationship, but that can lead to them continuing to see their boyfriend/girlfriend behind your back, making it more difficult for you to be involved.
- You can be an active bystander, too. Focus on subtle moves that can help. Big confrontations and interventions can actually backfire and make your teen feel that you’ve turned against them. Instead, pay close attention to your teen’s behavior and try to notice if they’re acting distracted or upset. Check in on them by asking how they’re doing. If ever your teen’s texts or the tone of their voice hint that they’re with their partner and things aren’t going well, provide an easy out and offer to pick them up. Consider taking them to a counselor or seeking professional help.
- If you suspect that your student is being physically abused, or if you’re just not sure where to turn, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Talk openly about what’s acceptable or not in relationships, whether your teen is in a relationship already or hasn’t started dating yet. Here are 10 tips for starting the conversation from Futures Without Violence.
- Set a good example with your kid(s) and in your own relationships. Your teen is less likely to accept subpar treatment if they’ve observed respectful dynamics at home. If you’re in an abusive or unhealthy relationship and children are involved, here’s how to get help.