The Web of Violence

Exploring violence and victimization

Parents: How to Help Teens Deal with Unhealthy Relationships

Parents make a difference as teens explore the world of romantic relationships

The Child Mind Institute recently asked me to answer the following question for their Speak Up for Kids campaign:

How do I help my teen realize that her boyfriend’s control over her activities and friendships is unfair and unhealthy?

This is my advice:

If you are concerned that your teen is in a controlling or abusive relationship, do these 3 things:  Support, encourage, and monitor.

First, support.  Your teen is learning how to meet legitimate, nearly universal desires for a romantic partner.  Be careful to avoid victim blaming.  A teen can't "fix" her partner or perfectly predict how a relationship will turn out. Try saying something like, "Relationships can be wonderful and I am glad to see you getting old enough to explore them, but it's also important that you are free to see other friends and that you are treated with trust and respect."

Second, encourage.  Adolescents are not inclined to "just say no."  It is developmentally normal to "just say yes" during adolescence.  Emphasize "yes."  Most teens want to be strong and independent.  Learning to cope with bad relationships is part of that—sooner or later most of us will have to deal with some kind of bad relationship. Sometimes I tell teens and young adults that I "wish them one good break-up."  Break-ups can be important life experience.  Many teens do not like the idea that they may grow "old" (like their parents!) with limited relationship experience.  Try to get them oriented toward their future selves and who they want to be.

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Finally, monitor.  Parents can still do a lot to protect children in the teen years.  Parents control important assets, such as car keys and money.  Use your leverage. The latest research suggests that an adult presence may be the best protection against teen dating violence and other violence.  Teens may desire total freedom from adult oversight, but that doesn't mean parents should grant it.  Sooner or later most of them will come to appreciate that their parents were there for them as they learned how to be adults.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South.

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