Talking with Your Teen about Abusive Dating Relationships

 Teen Dating Violence: what is it and how can you address it with your teen?

In recent years, stories about professional sports figures’, movie stars’ and famous singers’ involvement in domestic violence have been in the news. Such headlines not only raise our consciousness about this important issue, but can also provide a great opportunity to talk with teens about healthy relationships and dating abuse. Even if this topic seems like a difficult one to tackle and you feel that you don’t have all the answers, a few minutes to chat with your teen can go a long way.

Dating violence (or relationship abuse) isn’t arguing with your boy or girlfriend every once in a while, or having a partner who occasionally treats you poorly after having a bad day. It is a pattern of violent, emotionally harmful or controlling behavior that is a regular part of a romantic relationship. Dating abuse can cause physical injury and even death. It may involve sexual abuse.  However, it doesn’t have to result in physical harm to be abusive. Dating abuse can include verbal and emotional harm such as constant insults, isolation from friends and family, name calling and controlling what a partner wears or who they spend time with. Teen dating violence can affect anyone. It is not unique to any one social class, community, gender or ethnic group. Furthermore, modern technology has changed how teens interact and communicate, making it easier for the abusive partner to keep track of their victims. Emotional abuse using digital technology, including frequent text messages, threatening emails, and the circulation of embarrassing messages or photographs without consent, can be devastating to teens.

According to a 2006 survey of teens, more than one in four teenage girls who were in a romantic relationship reported experiencing repeated verbal abuse; one in three teens reported knowing a friend or peer who had been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner. As these findings indicate, being in an abusive relationship is not uncommon for teens today. It could happen to almost anyone, including a teen that you may know.

How can you tell if your teen is in an abusive relationship?

Abusive individuals can be overly controlling and make their partner fearful of them. Consequently, teens who are experiencing abuse may make changes to their daily schedule, show a loss of interest in favorite hobbies and activities, become isolated from friends, spend excessive amounts of time with the person they are dating, change the way they dress and/or show concern for how their partner will react when plans are changed at the last minute. Does your teen’s boy/girlfriend get angry when your child spends time with family or friends? Does your teen have to consult his/her partner about every decision?  Does your teen apologize for his/her partner’s behavior and make excuses?  These could be signs that they are in an abusive relationship.

If you suspect abuse in your teen’s dating relationship, talk with him or her. Too often fear, shame, and denial keeps the teen from admitting to the problem and from seeking help. According to the survey cited above only 33% of teens in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.  Be aware of how your teen is acting when their partner is around. Check cell phone bills to see how frequently text messages are being sent and received. Ask questions about their relationship  and listen without judgment.  Express your concern for their safety and well-being and let your teen have some control in making decisions about the relationship. A parent’s attention is their teen’s best defense.

As a parent it’s important to educate yourself and your teen about teen dating violence. It is especially important to understand that the most dangerous time in an abusive dating relationship is when the victimized partner decides to end the relationship.  Talk to your child about the importance of creating a safety plan. This is a personalized, practical plan that can help your teen be proactive and avert danger. A good safety plan helps the teen think through changes that will keep them as safe as possible at school, at home and other places that they go on a daily basis.  A great example of such a plan can be found at

Two good websites designed for teens to educate themselves about the signs of relationship abuse are and They can be great resources for parents as well. Many communities also have domestic violence agencies that can provide both information and support. School counselors can also be a good resource.  Remember, abusive relationships can be extremely dangerous for teens, leading to injury, emotional harm and contributing to a pattern of dysfunctional and abusive relationships in adulthood. With the help and support of parents, teens can learn to avoid or exit harmful relationships and to choose and develop relationships that are respectful, trusting, and healthy.

Let’s take the time to educate ourselves about this issue and open up a dialogue with our children.  It could save their lives. If you would like to continue reading on this topic, you can also check out our post on healthy teen dating relationships, which talks about how to prepare your teens for recognizing and seeking healthy relationships as they begin to date.



Article written by Nancy L. Vance, M.S.


Nancy Vance is the Family Living Educator for Clark County, WI. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois with both a Master’s of Science degree and a Bachelor of Science degree in the area of Family and Consumer Science. Nancy has had many diverse careers in the field of Family Science but most recently, she was the program director for a domestic violence agency in Illinois where she worked with families impacted by violence and abuse.