11 Signs of Teen Dating Abuse: What to Do If Your Teen is in an Abusive Relationship
Fact checked by Dr. Chelsea Hetherington. Hetherington is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.
Just like adults, many teenagers will have happy and healthy relationships with their dating partners. However, for some adolescents, romantic relationships can turn abusive.
Dating violence isn’t something we often think about happening to teens and young adults, but unfortunately, it’s more common than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10% of teens experience dating abuse each year.
If we can learn anything from recent news stories like Gabby Petito’s tragic murder, it’s that intimate partner violence is serious — so serious, that it can have deadly consequences for teens and young adults.
Teen dating abuse is something that all adults who care about young people should know how to spot, but what does an unhealthy relationship look like and how can you talk to teens about their dating relationships? Read on for important signs, advice, and conversation starters.
Related: How to Talk to Your Teen About Dating Violence
What is Teen Dating Abuse?
Intimate partner violence can occur between dating partners of any age, but what does it look like between teenagers? Teen dating abuse can take many forms:
Physical abuse occurs when someone commits acts of physical violence towards their dating partner, like hitting or slapping them. Physical abuse also includes threats of physical violence, whether or not violent acts take place.
Emotional abuse includes things like criticizing or invalidating a romantic partner, acting in ways that attempt to exert control over them, like telling them what to wear or who they’re allowed to speak to, or stalking them.
Sexual abuse happens when someone coerces or forces a dating partner to engage in sexual activity against their will, including unwanted touching and sexual assault.
Digital abuse includes abusive activities that use texting or social media to enact the abuse. This includes things like sending harassing text messages, tracking a dating partner's location using their cell phone, and posting unwanted information or images on social media.
Warning Signs of Teen Dating Violence
There isn’t one specific behavior that indicates a relationship is abusive, but there are a few red flags of unhealthy relationships that you might recognize in your child’s relationship.
One important thing to know is that abusive relationships can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. It can happen to kids who do well in school just as easily as it can happen to kids who struggle.
Keep an eye out for these warning signs of teen dating violence, regardless of how unlikely you think it is that your child would be in an unhealthy relationship:
- Excessive jealousy or controlling behavior
- Isolation from family members or friends
- Humiliation, ridicule, or name-calling
- Invasions of privacy
- False accusations or gas-lighting
- Excessive gift-giving and other grand gestures, also known as love bombing
- Excessive anger or rage, often unexpected
- Damaging or destroying personal property
- Showing up unannounced
- Monitoring activities through their social media, cell phone, or stalking
- Physical or sexual violence of any kind
Any one of these abusive behaviors alone is cause for concern that your teen might be in an unhealthy relationship. If you recognize one of these signs in your child’s dating relationships, try some of the strategies below to discuss it with them.
Talking to Your Teen About Healthy Relationships
As a parent or caregiver, what can you do to help your teen if you suspect they’re in an abusive relationship?
One of the best things you can do as a parent is actually to talk about what healthy relationships look like and how to cultivate them, rather than advising your child on how to avoid abusive relationships. Consider how you model respectful, healthy relationships at home and in your own life, whether through your own romantic relationships or other close relationships. Regardless of how old your child is, it’s never too early to talk about respect and boundaries in relationships.
Another thing that you can do is to talk openly and honestly to your teen about sex, dating, and relationships. Rather than lecturing your teen about risks and statistics, engage openly and authentically with them, again modeling respectful relationships with your child.
Conversations about dating and relationships are best held over time. Don’t feel the need to communicate everything your teen needs to know in one fell swoop and have that be the end of it. View this as an ongoing conversation that you’ll continue to have together over time, and ensure that your teen also knows that this is something they talk to you about.
Conversations Starters to Talk About Teen Dating Abuse
If you want to talk to your teenager about abusive relationships, here are some conversation starters that you can try:
- “I noticed that your boyfriend said he doesn’t want you to hang out with your guy friends anymore. What do you think about that? How did that make you feel?”
- “I noticed that your phone has been buzzing all night. Is there something exciting going on?”
- “I noticed that your best friend hasn’t been over for a while. Is everything alright?”
- “I noticed that you haven’t been laughing as much recently. I miss seeing your smile. Are you okay?"
You might notice that many of these conversation starters begin with objective observations — “I noticed that X happened” — followed by asking an open-ended question. Even if you don’t get a response, this framework can be a great way to show your teen that you’re open to conversations and that you’re not displaying any judgment.
How to Get Help
If you believe that your teen or young adult child is in an abusive relationship, you aren’t alone. There is help available to you. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, please call 911 immediately.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 800-799-7233 or via text by texting START to 88788. The organizations Teen Dating Violence and loveisrespect.org both have specific resources on intimate partner violence in adolescents and young adults.
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Dr. Chelsea Hetherington (she/her) is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.