How to Identify and Help Your Teen in an Abusive Relationship

Teen dating violence is an adverse childhood experience that affects millions of young people in the United States.

By Cara During & Cristina Cabral

It can include physical, emotional, sexual, digital, or financial abuse, and/or stalking. “1 in 3 U.S. teens will experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from someone they’re in a relationship with before they become adults.” (Love is Respect, 2023)

At The Center for Empowerment and Education (CEE), our Community Impact team provides prevention education from kindergarten through college in our 11-town catchment area, serving dozens of schools. Our educators and advocates work with students daily and see the very real experiences of dating abuse these teens face.

As a parent, it may never have occurred to you that your child could ever be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. A teen in an abusive relationship may not recognize what's happening or have the experience to know what to do — but as a parent, you can help.

How to Prepare Your Teen for Dating Relationships

Model Healthy Relationships: Parents and adults are a huge influence on a teenager’s perspective on relationships. Model healthy behaviors such as healthy conflict resolution, respect, support, and compassion. Your kids are always observing and absorbing what’s happening around them.

Normalize Conversations about Relationships: Use the movies and shows you watch, books you read, and relationships in your lives as tools to discuss what a healthy and unhealthy relationship can feel and look like. Ask them questions to learn more about your teen’s idea of relationships. Don’t shame or judge any questions they may have or feelings that they share.

Be Your Teen’s Trusted Adult: Create an environment where your teen feels safe coming to you when they're struggling. Let them know they can talk to you about anything. Teens are more likely to tell a friend about their relationship because they are afraid of judgment. Encourage them to connect with their friends, other trusted adults, and social circles. It’s important to have a network of support.

Warning Signs of Teen Dating Violence

Warning signs can include physical injuries with inconsistent stories, sudden change in behavior, substance use, a drop in grades or academic standing, and withdrawal from friends or family (isolation) or activities they once enjoyed. Trust your gut if you sense something is off.

How to Support Your Teen if They are in an Abusive Relationship

Listen, validate their feelings, and remind them that you believe and support them. No matter how hard it might be, put aside your own beliefs and respond non-judgmentally, even if it is difficult to understand or you don't fully agree with them. Keep the lines of communication open; they may not open up fully right away but let them know you are there.

If you ever become concerned for your teen’s safety, it is very important that you reach out to CEE. Abuse can escalate, especially if they are trying to break up with their abusive partner.

Remember, our no-cost and confidential hotlines are available 24/7.

Domestic Violence Hotline (203)731-5206

Sexual Assault Hotline (203)731-5204

This article was written by Cara During, The Center for Empowerment and Education Director of Community Impact, and Cristina Cabral, Manager of Community-Based Programs.