Spotting the Signs of Abuse

What every parent should know about unhealthy relationships

A parent’s worst nightmare: Her teen's fairytale relationship has spiraled violently out of control, and she doesn’t seem to want to free herself. 

Unfortunately, relationship violence is not all that uncommon. According to a 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9.4 percent of high-school students reported being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the prior 12 months. 

Statistics outlined in an earlier Liz Clairborne Inc.-sponsored “Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Study” (2008) are even more shocking. One in five (20 percent) 13–14 year olds in relationships said they knew friends/peers who had been kicked, hit, slapped, or punched in anger by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Further, the data revealed an alarming correlation between early sexual experiences and tween/teen dating violence/abuse. One out of three (33 percent) teens who had sex by age 14 said they had been physically abused by an angry partner. What's even worse is that parents seem to be largely unaware of the true abuse levels present among tweens and teens. Only 12 percent of parents (compared with 23 percent of tweens) know someone their child’s age who has had a partner threaten to spread rumors if they didn’t do as told.

A Rampant Problem

Dating violence crosses all racial, economic, and social lines. Most victims are young women (although teen boys can also be victims). They often keep their suffering secret, so it is typical that parents don’t find out until things have gotten out of hand.

As a mother of a teenage daughter who was abused by a controlling and violent boyfriend, Heidi* explains, “We only found out because my husband took Sabrina's* phone for another reason and was shocked to see messages her boyfriend was sending her.” 

Heidi says that Sabrina’s boyfriend did not start mistreating her until months into the relationship, but by that time, he had already established control, planting the seeds of doubt about her other relationships. “He would tell her things like, ‘Your mom and dad don’t love you like I do,’” Heidi reports. It escalated rapidly, and the abuse was both physical and verbal, but Sabrina would hide it. “The school called us one day and said that we had to get there immediately because our daughter had been hurt by her boyfriend.” 

Describing the fear, hopelessness, anger, and frustration that a parent feels when this is happening to her child, Heidi says, “It’s hard to understand how awful this is unless you are going through it. It started to affect our marriage and our other children because we were consumed with Sabrina’s situation.” Even though she and her husband had approached an attorney and filed for an order of protection, Sabrina would sneak out with him, and once she turned 18, refused to continue with the order of protection. 

Heidi turned to a domestic violence shelter for help. “They told me that Sabrina had to be the one to realize she needs to get out,” she recalls. “They said my husband and I had to continue to love her and to let her know she had a home with us, but to make it clear that her boyfriend was not welcome.” 

Fortunately, Sabrina has finally broken away from her now ex-boyfriend’s control over her, but no parent can ever be prepared to endure what the family went through. Parents should be aware of warning signs, available help in their local communities, and the steps they should take in order to protect their teen from relationship violence. 

Avoid Abuse from the Start

A healthy and loving relationship with caregivers is a prerequisite for future relationships because our kids will know what to look for in a companion. However, this does not guarantee that an adolescent won’t become involved in a destructive relationship. 

“The key to helping your daughter avoid an abusive relationship in the first place lies in creating a strong, loving bond with her dad. This is the first relationship with a man that starts your daughter on her love map and leads to her choice of men to date and marry,” explains Carole Lieberman, MD, host of the weekly Internet radio show, “Dr. Carole’s Couch,” and member of the clinical faculty at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network and best-selling author of 30 books, including Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children (William Morrow, 2006), counsels, “I reject the modern, fraudulent notion that you’re not supposed to mettle in your child’s life. Parents need to be up to speed on what their children are doing.” 

5 Warning Signs

According to the CDC, parents need to be wary of the following behaviors:

Isolation from family and friends
Loss of interest in activites and hobbies that were once enjoyable
Making excuses for a partner's behavior
Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or alochol or drug abuse
Loss of self-confidence

Lieberman explains that parents will notice changes shortly after the relationship has started and warns, “Even if she tries to minimize the abuse, such as by saying that she pushed the boy first or blaming herself for being a ‘bad girlfriend,’ you need to swing into action immediately and prevent her from seeing him again.”

Steps Parents Should Take

“If you really want your teen to navigate her way through a difficult or abusive relationship, you need her to trust you; otherwise, she won’t even be able to hear you,” says Robert Epstein, PhD, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and author of Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence (Linden Publishing, 2010). “The most important way to achieve this is to show her that you trust her judgment and not to criticize her for being an idiot who is being taken advantage of by a defective male. In other words, treat her like the young adult she is, not like a child.”

Boteach says that parents need to be in positions of authority but understand their child’s needs. “Rather than saying ‘I won’t allow it,’ ask questions about what your teen is feeling, such as ‘Are you getting what you want from this relationship?’ or ‘Do you feel this person respects you?’” This gets the conversation going, and your teen will be less inclined to shut you out. If she does, Boteach suggests that you ask her to speak to a trusted friend or someone else that she respects. However, if your tween or teen is truly in a dangerous position, you need to act. “In this case, you need to step in, and you need to end it,” urges Boteach. 

Lieberman recommends that parents encourage their child to see a therapist, even if she seems adverse to the idea. Sometimes parents have to go to extremes to protect their child from a violent relationship. “If she ignores your warnings and sneaks out anyway, contact the school and the police, especially if there is proof of physical abuse.”

Epstein advises parents to be on their tweens' and teens' side by giving them a better quality of love than their boyfriend or girlfirend. Unconditional love and being there to help is essential. “Tell her that if, after hearing your advice, she decides to go the other way, you will still love her and be there for her. Let’s see the boyfriend match that!”

Myrna Beth Haskell is the author of  Lions and Tigers and Teens: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2012).

Steps to End an Abusive Relationship

Recognize the Abuse: Help your child realize that disrespect or violence of any kind (emotional, verbal, or physical) is NEVER okay.
Document: Record incidents of abuse to see the red flags. Seek medical attention. Not all injuries are visible, and it is another way to document the abuse.
End Access: Change all passwords (phone and online) prior to telling the abuser that the relationship is over.
Safety First: If safety is at all a concern, you do not “owe it” to the abuser to meet in person to end the relationship.
Be Clear: When ending any relationship, use clear language, such as, “This relationship is not one I want to be in today or in the future. We are no longer dating.” 
Hand Over & Report Technology: Give your phone to a trusted adult who will report any abusive messages sent to you. 
Free Yourself of Stress: Steer clear of online communities where the abuser may try to influence you (e.g., Facebook). 

Source: Mike Domitrz, founder of "The Date Safe Project," at

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