Teenage dating abuse looks like any other form of domestic abuse and can include physical violence such as slapping, hitting and punching; verbal abuse such as name-calling and constant criticism; emotional abuse like displays of extreme jealousy, mind games, controlling behaviour, emotional blackmail, or sharing explicit images; and sexual abuse such as unwanted sexual contact, sexual assault, or getting someone drunk or drugged to get sex.
Why Teenagers Don’t Tell
Many teenagers keep quiet about what is happening to them and parents are often the last to know. This isn’t necessarily because your child mistrusts you – there are lots of reasons why they might keep relationship abuse a secret and these can be complex and overlapping.
Teenagers may just be gaining autonomy over their own lives like being able to stay out later, having a girlfriend or boyfriend, or generally having more freedoms. If they tell you what is happening, you might take that control away from them.
They might not be ready to end the relationship and be hoping that the abuse will stop. They might worry that you will stop them seeing their partner if they tell you about the abuse.
They feel embarrassed and ashamed, particularly if this is their first dating relationship.
They might be afraid you will intervene in an inappropriate way and make the situation worse – they may genuinely be frightened of repercussions against themselves and or the family.
They think you will blame them, be disappointed in them or not trust them again in the future.
They may have been seeing the abuser in secret because it is someone you disapprove of or have banned them from dating. If they tell you about the abuse they will also have to tell you they have been lying to you.
They may think the abuse is normal or they are to blame, especially if the abuser has repeatedly told them it is all their fault.
Why teenagers are more vulnerable
Young people have little or no prior experience of relationships and therefore do not recognise what a healthy, caring relationship looks like. They may have had poor relationships modelled to them by others.
Teenagers may put too much emphasis on having a romantic partner, regardless of how they are treated. This might be more important than other things in their lives.
They can easily confuse extreme jealousy and possessiveness with love.
They might think you won’t believe them or take them seriously.
Abusive relationships are cyclical – going from “honeymoon” period to abusive period – this is confusing for adults, let alone teenagers.
Teenagers might need to see their girlfriend/boyfriend every day at school or college making it more difficult to end the relationship.
A teenage pregnancy can create additional problems and make an abusive relationship more difficult to leave.
Advice for Parents:
Do make time for your teenager to talk, or identify another trusted adult they can talk to.
Do give them lots of love and validation.
Do take their relationships seriously.
Do involve others if you think your teenager is at risk, such as police or their school.
Do make sure your teenager is safe – perhaps arranging lifts for them until things settle.
Do tell your teenager that the abuse is not their fault.
Don’t get angry, this is likely to make your teenager clam up and stop talking.
Don’t dismiss your teenager’s concerns, they might be at risk of harm.
Don’t dole out punishments in the heat of the moment. If you need to change the rules, wait until this has been sorted.
Don’t demand the relationship ends immediately. Your teenager may need help and support to realise that abuse is unacceptable and your demands can lead them to continuing the relationship in secret.
National Training Manager, NCDV