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I Think My Teen is Being Abusive Toward Their Significant Other: What Can I Do?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

You’ve already taken the first, most difficult steps. You recognize and accept there may be a problem. This sounds like the second half of an overused platitude, we know: the first step in fixing a problem is….but in this case, it applies. Taking those first crucial steps is truly very difficult. No parent wants to accept their child is being abusive towards another child. Even if they’re teenagers, you know both your child and the object of abuse (if it’s happening) are still growing and developing. Not little kids, not yet adults: those challenging and hard-to-define in-between years. This is a critical moment in their lives. If your teen is being abusive, they need to learn there’s no wiggle-room. The behavior is unequivocally unacceptable. And the teen on the receiving end needs to learn the same thing, because staying in an abusive relationship is also completely and totally unacceptable.

Dating Violence Statistics

The sad facts are that teen dating abuse and violence are far more common than most parents realize. It’s part of a larger problem in our society. For example, the big picture statistics show that about:

  • 20% of women and 14% of men experience physical, emotional, or sexual violence during their teen years.
  • 33% of women and 25% of men will experience relationship violence at some point during their lives.
  • About 1.5 million high school students in the U.S. experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year.

And only 33% of teens who experience violence in their relationships tell someone about it

That’s the teen side of the equation. One reason teen dating violence is so prevalent is because parents and other adults are at loose ends. They either don’t know or don’t know what to do about it if they do know.

What Adults Think

The stats for relevant adults look like this:

  • About 81% of parents think it’s not an issue, or say they don’t know if it is or not.
  • More than 80% of high school counselors admit they’re not prepared to handle reports/incidents of teen dating abuse in their schools.

To recap that data: teen dating violence happens more than most people think. In addition, a majority of the adults who can help – i.e. school counselors and parents – admit to not knowing about it, not thinking it’s an issue, and not knowing what they’d do if they did find out about it.

Considering those facts, it’s no wonder a third of teens who experience dating violence don’t tell anyone anything about it. Because the chances are they won’t be believed. And if they are, the adults they tell might not have any help to offer them.

Signs Your Teen May Be Abusive

If you suspect there’s a problem, then you’re on the leading edge of this issue. Most parents won’t even consider the possibility. Here are the signs to watch for if you think abuse may be happening, and your teen may be the one doing it. Your teen:

  1. Has problems managing anger, frustration, and difficult emotions
  2. Lacks mature social skills and awareness
  3. Gets too serious too fast in relationships
  4. Insults, degrades, or otherwise puts their significant other down
  5. Has tantrums, destroys property, or throws and hits things around the home
  6. Tries to isolate their significant other from friends and family
  7. Uses drugs and alcohol to excess
  8. Is jealous, possessive, and tries to control their significant other by checking up on them all the time and demanding constant contact
  9. Won’t accept it when their significant other breaks up with them
  10. Threatens their significant other with violence or uses physical violence in any way: pushing, shoving, grabbing, or hitting
  11. Tries to force or manipulate their significant other into sexual activity

Any one of these behaviors or attitudes is a red flag. Two or more constitute legitimate reason for concern. And anything involving physical contact and emotional/sexual manipulation means there’s a real problem. You need to step in, stop the behavior, and help your child find healthy ways of expressing their emotions and relating to others.

What You Can Do

If you find out your teen is engaging in any of the behaviors listed above, your first job is to stop the abuse. You may find out through observing the behavior or hearing about it from your teen’s friends. You may find about it directly from their significant other or their parents. Whatever way the information comes to you, you need to act on it.

Right now. Don’t wait. Every moment builds on the last, and if you know and do nothing, three things happen: you give your tacit consent, you make it worse for the abused, and you make it harder to break the cycle.

Ten Steps to Take

Here are the steps to take if you discover your teen is being abusive:

1. Do not ignore it.

Hiding your head in the sand will only make things worse.

2. Get your teen out of the relationship right away.

You need to protect the other teen and address the issue immediately with your teen. The best way to end it is to insist your teen stop all contact of any sort with the other teen: no texts, no calls, no social media, no pressuring their friends, none of that whatsoever. No contact means no contact.

3. Separate the behavior from the person.

Abuse is a horrible thing. However, if your teen is abusing someone, it does not make them a horrible person. It means your teen has a problem that you need to help them resolve.

4. Acknowledge their feelings.

Recognize and understand the depth and intensity of their emotions, but do not validate the way they handle them. Your teen needs to understand that any type of abuse – emotional, physical, or social – is unacceptable.

5. Get to the root.

Find out what’s making your teen so angry. Understanding the reasons does not condone the behavior, but it’s essential in understanding how to stop it.

6. Model appropriate behavior.

Make absolutely sure that you are not being abusive to your spouse, your children, or anyone in your life. Because parents are teen’s first examples: if there’s abuse or a history of abuse in your home, then that’s likely to be the root cause.

7. Teach social and emotional skills.

Brainstorm stress management skills, emotional regulation skills, and focus on empathy and compassion. Your teen needs to be reminded that victims of abuse can suffer long-term physical and emotional consequences.

8. Teach appropriate boundaries.

Teach your teen that in healthy relationships – even the most intimate – clear boundaries exist. These boundaries are emotional, physical, and in the 21st century, they’re digital, too. When a partner sets a boundary, it has to be respected completely and immediately, no questions asked.

9. Work on how to handle conflict.

Your teen needs to understand that conflict does not have to end in a physical or verbal fight. There are productive ways to disagree, even when the feelings are raw and the emotions are intense.

10. Get professional help.

If you feel unequipped to handle an issue this serious (it is very serious) or feel your teen is not responding well to your intervention, then seek the help of a fully licensed and credentialed psychiatrist or therapist. See below for links to point you in the right direction.

Prevalance of Abuse

Relationship abuse is an issue that eats at the very core of our society. The long-term consequences of abuse are almost too many to list: PTSD, alcohol and substance use disorders, depression, difficulty forming healthy relationships – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the words of former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter:

“Without any equivocation…the number one abuse of human rights on earth…is the abuse of women and girls.”

While this quote is specific to women and girls and our topic is relationship abuse toward both boys and girls, former President Carter makes his point: abuse is rampant, worldwide, and represents not only a local problem, but a global phenomenon we need to recognize and remediate. When you address this issue in your teen, you’re part of a greater work that’s happening right now: the move toward a world in which love, empathy, and compassion share space with – and hopefully supplant – power and physical strength as primary currencies in relationships.

Resources for Parents

You are not alone. As mentioned above, millions of teens each year experience relationship abuse and/or dating violence. For every example, there’s a person on the other side: it’s important to remember that as unacceptable as abusive behavior is, the abusers need help, too. Firstly, they need help learning to process their emotions and handle relationship difficulties without resorting to abuse. Secondly, hey need help managing stress, managing anger, being accountable for their actions, and learning positive and productive habits. Finally, understand that they’re off track and need your help and guidance. It’s hard, but you’re the one who needs to spearhead the healing.

Here’s a list of resources to get started:

If your teenage son needs help with these issues, A Call to Men has a mission we can all get behind: “…to promote a healthy and respectful manhood and shift attitudes and behaviors that devalue women, girls, and other marginalized groups.”

We can’t think of a better mission than that, but we might rewrite it to say:

“We’re committed to promoting a healthy and respectful adulthood and shift attitudes and behavior that devalue anyone, anywhere.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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