By Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans, MA and Barrie Levy, MSW
As our kids grow older and start asserting their independence, we as parents begin to worry about their safety and well being. When it comes to dating and intimacy, it is hard to know how to protect them, especially if a relationship turns verbally or physically abusive. As many as one in four high school and college-aged youth are affected by an abusive relationship. How do we help our teenagers leave a dangerous situation?
Parents have less control over their children’s lives as they get older. Instead, they can develop a “consultant” relationship in which they have influence over a teen’s choices, decisions, safety, and well being. Maintaining a strong relationship with your teen will be valuable if a crisis in their relationship occurs.
What makes a strong relationship between parents and children so important when dealing with a teen’s abusive relationship? Abuse often involves patterns of isolation and secrecy that further endanger the victim after the abuse has started. The more a teen keeps the emotional, sexual, and physical abuse secret from family and friends, the more ashamed they become. The more ashamed they become, the more isolated and protective of their abusers they become. As isolation increases, violence tends to become more frequent and more severe. By upholding a connection and communication with their children, parents may be able to interrupt the abuser’s attempts to isolate the victim.
Some parents find out about their son or daughter’s abusive relationship as soon as the abuse starts – they see bruises, witness a verbal or physical attack, or their child tells them. Others don’t find out until it has gone on for so long or has become so severe that their child’s school, the hospital or the police notify them of it. There are many signs of abuse, including: injuries; fear or nervousness around the partner; being stalked or checked up on; being upset by any verbal lashing out; isolation; and giving up interests, friends, and time with family. Sexual violence is a difficult aspect for teens to talk about; forced or coerced sex can happen repeatedly throughout the abusive relationship.
Naturally, parents will search for a way to understand why a teen would love and stay with someone who constantly threatens and hurts them. Most battering relationships are not solely violent, but have tender moments as well. Girls have told us that hope, fear, and love keep them tied to the young men who harm them.
An essential aspect of helping a teen that is being abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend is to be attentive about what will work. Parents have two tasks: to create a safety net for their teen and a support network for themselves. Gathering information is an ongoing effort.
Parents can ask a son or daughter in a non-judgmental, non-blaming, and calm way about what is happening in his or her relationship. For instance, parents can ask a daughter if she has ever been afraid to say no to sex when she didn’t want it. This conversation may be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to overcome her isolation and secrecy, and for the abuser or the abused teen to hear that the victim doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. Listening carefully to what their teen tells them and asking for their thoughts allows teens to express their emotions, consider the problem, and make rational decisions.
If a parent feels their child is in danger the best action is to talk about it with friends, family, or counseling, which are all good sources of support to help parents deal with their own reactions. The constant rollercoaster of an abusive relationship can negatively impact everyone in the family. Parents must set boundaries to limit this effect, such as setting restrictions regarding the extent they will be drawn into the drama of their teen’s relationship, and their expectations and consequences of their teen’s behavior.
Parents might assume that teens know what a “good” relationship looks like and understand how to develop one. Teens need to learn not only about “violence-free” relationships, but what it takes to engage in healthy ones. Information, awareness and attention will help parents ensure their children know what a healthy relationship is. Talking with your teen about what they are looking for in their relationships will create awareness of the differences between unhealthy, abusive behavior and healthy behavior. Then they can begin to understand what it takes to be a healthy partner, to be treated with respect and treat others with respect. n
Help Your Teen Recognize Warning Signs
It is important to ask your teen thought-provoking questions that help them to recognize warning signs of abuse – in their own relationships and in those of their friends. You can start a discussion at any time by asking a question.
Examples of good conversation starters are:
• What is abuse in a relationship?
• If you saw someone treating a boyfriend or girlfriend badly or being mean to him or her, would you think they were being abused? Why or why not?
• Has anyone you know posted rumors or harmful gossip about a boyfriend or girlfriend online? What happened afterward? Do you think this was abusive?
• Would it be weird to you if someone you were going with texted you all day to ask where you are and what you’re doing? What would be weird, or upset you, and what would be ok? What if you were afraid not to reply to repeated texts, and felt you had to respond immediately to every text? What would you do?
• Have any of your friends ever talked to you about boy or girlfriends being too controlling?
Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans, MA, is the executive director of Peace Over Violence, headquartered in Los Angeles. Barrie Levy, MSW, is a violence prevention specialist. They are co-authors of the book When Dating Becomes Dangerous: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Relationship Abuse.