Growing up is hard and being a parent can feel very difficult at times. You’re not alone.
As parents and adults, it is our responsibility to protect our children and keep them safe. As they grow older, it gets more complicated because adolescents are beginning to form their own identity, gain independence, and develop relationships. It can also feel pretty scary when teens start dating.
And through no fault of their own, anyone can find themselves in an unhealthy relationship.
In 2021, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed increased rates of teen dating violence. In the previous 12 months, 10% of U.S. high school students surveyed experienced sexual dating violence. This includes things they did not want to do like kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse. In addition, 9% of U.S. high school students surveyed experienced physical dating violence such as being hurt on purpose, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon.
These facts are incredibly upsetting, but you can make a difference. Adults can provide pivotal guidance and support by modeling healthy relationships and having open, ongoing conversations. In today’s blog, we’ll highlight warning signs and share strategies to help youth in unhealthy relationships.
Warning Signs of Unhealthy Relationships
Recognizing warning signs can be very challenging for youth—especially if they’ve never talked about these type of “red flag” behaviors. It’s also important to talk about these issues in all types of relationships—family relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. Here are some examples:
Guilting or Manipulating
Guilting or manipulating any relationship using language someone wants to hear is a way of controlling another person. Using the word “love” in a romantic relationship in order to influence someone to partake in a sexual act is unhealthy and can be borderline abusive. Saying, “If you love me, we will have sex” or “You had sex with your previous partner so why not me?” prohibits someone from giving consent because consent must be given without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Possessiveness or Controlling
A sign of possessiveness can be someone who feels like they have to constantly check their phone out of fear of how someone will negatively react if they miss a message or don’t respond quickly enough. Controlling behaviors can happen in all types of relationships. This can be an extremely difficult balance for parents who also want to ensure youth are interacting with safe individuals. However, fear created by this type of behavior can have long-lasting impacts on emotional well-being and mental health.
Pressuring or Isolating
Pressuring someone into doing something they don’t want to do is considered rushing the pace of the relationship. A person is not allowed to decide for themselves when they are ready or comfortable. Signs of isolation could be restricting someone from interacting with friends or making a person choose between them and their friends or family. In non-romantic relationships, peer pressure can be a sign where someone is encouraging a friend to act irresponsibly or against the wishes of their parent or caregiver.
Whether it’s in a romantic relationship, friendship, or family dynamic, belittling or comments/criticisms that make someone feel insecure is a form of verbal abuse and can be difficult to recognize. Verbal abuse can take the form of put-downs or comments that are designed to elicit shame or guilt. Someone saying, “After everything I do for you, you treat me this way?” or “You are worthless” is demeaning and can make someone feel inferior or helpless. Whether it is a put-down, condescending comment, or insult, this behavior is absolutely unacceptable. In addition to being unhealthy, it can also be an indicator of an abusive situation. Much of the time, belittling is done in private—making it even harder to identify in relationships.
According to Health.com, love bombing is a type of emotional abuse where someone “bombs” another person with affection, attention, compliments, and even gifts in order to control the relationship. Love bombing is an expression of manipulation—not kindness. This is difficult to identify because it’s tricky to understand someone’s true intentions. Many new relationships start out in the “honeymoon” phase, which can last between a few months to even a couple years. This stage is typically followed by a more comfortable phase of affection. Signs of love bombing include large amounts of texts, calls, social media posts/comments, or even celebrating very minor milestones. This might be normal in new relationships. However, if the person gets angry when their affections are not returned, this can potentially be a sign of love bombing. Bringing up marriage or using “when we have kids” language in the early stages of the relationship can also be a warning sign. If someone suspects their partner of love bombing, it is important to establish boundaries. Nobody should ever feel like they have to compromise their boundaries for someone else.
How You Can Help Youth in Unhealthy Relationships
Define and Model Healthy Relationships
Keep in mind that you’ve already taught your child a lot about relationships—both positives and negatives. Every day, you are modeling healthy relationships and teaching your child values and skills. Kids pick up on everything around them and their understanding of relationships starts at home. In addition to everyday situations, it can be helpful to use media as an example and identify healthy and unhealthy behaviors. If you’re watching a movie at home as a family, take the time (during or after) to call out those behaviors and explain how they’re damaging or hurtful.
Helping youth recognize how they feel and what makes them uncomfortable can be an important part of establishing their own boundaries. Boundaries can change over time, but no one should ever feel like they have to compromise their boundaries for a relationship. Boundaries are not a form of punishment; boundaries are simply limits we set for ourselves.
Talking about consent—in all contexts, not just romantic relationships—is also important. True consent can only be given without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of any substance. Other examples of consent could be asking permission to hug a friend or asking if you can post a picture of another person on social media. Strong communication is a key aspect of healthy relationships. These are more than just one-time conversations. Don’t be afraid of establishing and reinforcing your boundaries.
Talk About Behaviors and Avoid Blaming
It can be quite upsetting to suspect your child is in an unhealthy romantic relationship. While your initial reaction might be to try to forcibly end the relationship, that could cause your child to quickly become defensive and intensify their feelings. You can have positive conversations where you avoid blaming and talk about the behaviors—not the person. You can ask, “How does it make you feel when they check your phone without your permission?” This prompts them to consider their feelings and how those behaviors impact them. Approach conversations from an angle of curiosity and ask open-ended questions. You can help develop critical thinking skills and support them in deciding what next steps they should take.
Listen and Express Concern
Finally, expect to have more than one conversation. Create space to listen and allow silence for youth to talk. Accepting you are in an unhealthy relationship can be very difficult (especially if it has become abusive) but expressing your concern and showing support is valuable. Let your children know they’re not alone. Parents and caregivers should encourage their children to share their emotions. Remind them it is a sign of strength—not weakness. Being honest with ourselves and in tune with how we’re feeling can help us take the necessary steps towards healing.
Remember, you can help guide, support, and foster positive self-worth as your children develop into resilient human beings who can form and nurture healthy connections.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a challenging time, there is help available.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 or Text START to 88788
On our website at iRespect&Protect.com, we have we have a Understanding Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships worksheet for teens. You can use this to help youth better understand boundaries, consent, and how to identify signs of healthy vs unhealthy relationships. On the back, youth can consider four different scenarios and reflect on how they would respond to each situation. This is also a helpful resource for those who want to know how to support a friend in an unhealthy relationship. Additional tools, resources, and trainings are also available for parents at https://irespectandprotect.com/for-parents/.