Help! I Think my Child is in an Abusive Relationship.

If you think someone you love is in an abusive relationship, keep reading...

By Dena Kohleriter, LCSW Licensed Clinician | Feb 17, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common
Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

We recently ran a post called How to Talk to your Kids about Healthy Relationships. You may have read that and thought, “That’s great, but my child is already in a relationship. And actually, it doesn’t seem that healthy to me.” So, let’s dive deeper. If you have a child who you fear is in an abusive relationship, you are doing the right thing by being concerned and trying to find ways to help her. Usually dating violence is an issue that is bigger than parents and teens can handle alone, so it is always best to get a counselor involved if you suspect that your child is in danger.

Let me start by saying that it’s not an abusive relationship if you just don’t like the guy. If he doesn’t shake your hand, or he wears strange clothes, or he smokes cigarettes, you might not like him. You might think he’s not good enough for your daughter. But that doesn’t mean he’s abusive.

Here we are talking about physical or emotional abuse. How can you know if your child’s relationship falls into this category? The most obvious sign is that there is inequality in the relationship. One person’s needs/wants/desires trump the other person’s. In an abusive relationship, boundaries are not respected. There is often intense jealousy. There is a possible abuse of words or physical abuse. At the heart of an abusive relationship is power and control. One person has it, and the other person doesn’t. Here is a great cheat-sheet on healthy vs. unhealthy relationships if you want to dig deeper. If this sounds like someone you know, keep reading.

If someone you love is in an abusive relationship, the best thing you can do is let her know that this is not her fault. Her worth should not be tied to the relationship that she’s in, so you want to avoid making her feel like she’s only as good as her relationship.

The common instinct is to forbid her from seeing the abuser. The truth is, it’s not that simple. In fact, that might make it more dangerous. Can you imagine breaking up with someone abusive and then having to sit next to him in class every day? Or having him wait for you at your locker? Pushing someone to leave before she’s ready increases the chances that she’ll get back together with him.

If you tell her what to do – “You should break up with him RIGHT NOW. He’s no good for you!” – you’re doing exactly the same thing as the abuser. You are making her choices for her. Instead, you should ask questions that create possibilities for her. You can ask things like:

“Have you ever thought about leaving the relationship?”

“What would happen if you broke up with him?”

“What would it feel like to not be in a relationship?”

“What is making you stay?”

Why questions, things like, “Why are you still with him?” or “Why don’t you just break up with him already?” come across as threatening. Open, hypothetical questions give her the opportunity to think about different possibilities.

Another important suggestion is to not put down the abuser. Remember that she is in a relationship with him, so as toxic as it seems to you, she doesn’t see all of the same things. She is constantly looking to find his best traits to justify staying in a relationship with him. When you put him down, she is more likely to defend him and write off your advice. But instead of saying nothing, you can put down the abuse. You should let her know that love shouldn’t hurt. A great resource is www.loveisrespect.org.

Lastly, you should build her up by highlighting her strengths. Tell her that she is courageous for talking to you about her situation, she is brave for living with it every day. Tell her that she is a wonderful person who deserves to be treated with respect. She deserves someone who cares about her and is looking out for her best interests. Let her know that you believe in her, and that she’s not alone. Continue to monitor her friendships and relationships and encourage her to keep the lines of communication open as she navigates the complex world of dating and social relationships.