How To Help Your Child if They're in an Abusive Relationship

From learning the signs of an abusive relationship to knowing how to act—and what to say—here's how you can support your child if they are experiencing mental, sexual, or physical abuse.

mother and teen daughter talking and hugging
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No parent ever wants to think that their child may be exposed to or (worse) has become the victim of abuse, but the truth is it happens. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), nearly 20 individuals are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. And while abuse can take on many forms—physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, and sexual abuse, to name a few—the type doesn't matter. All kinds of abuse are damaging and can have a severe impact on the victim's mental health.

Here's everything you and your child should know about abusive relationships, from what they look like to how to help your child escape an unhealthy situation.

What Is Abuse?

According to Kids Health, abuse is any form of cruel or violent treatment toward another person. "Abuse is when someone hurts or causes emotional stress to someone else," the organization explains.

Abuse can happen in any relationship. You can be abused by a romantic partner, family member, or friend. It can happen individually or on a large scale. Bullying, for example, is a form of abuse. And hate crimes directed at people because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation are also abuse.

Should You Talk to Your Child About Dating Violence and Abuse?

The short answer is yes. Parents can—and should—talk to teens, tweens, and children about dating violence and abuse, ideally before they find they find themselves in an unhealthy situation.

"While some parents shy away from uncomfortable topics, it is important to talk to your chid about these issues and to teach them about healthy relationships," says Carole C. Swiecicki, Ph.D., chief programmatic officer at the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center in South Carolina.

But how do you have these conversations? Where—and when—should you begin? You can start teaching children about safety and self-respect early. Preschoolers can and should learn to keep their hands to themselves, for example. They should be taught (and come to understand) that violence is not the answer to and/or in any situation. Elementary-aged children can learn about setting and respecting boundaries. They can practice things like saying "no" or expressing their needs, wants, and desires, particularly with family and friends. As for teens and tweens, you should have meaningful conversations with them about what healthy relationships look like. You should also discuss dating violence and abuse.

"Talking to your kids about what abuse looks like is one of the best ways you can help them avoid abusive relationships," says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor practicing at Shaded Bough Counseling in Austin, Texas. "Start the discussion from a place of trust, not control. Say something like 'I know you're getting old enough to form your own relationships, and I want to help you be informed so you can feel confident making those choices.' Ask your teen what kinds of relationships they think are healthy and unhealthy, and how they would want a partner to treat them. And treat it as a subject you can learn about together." You should be open to their thoughts and input. Listen to what they have to say.

If you have a specific concern about your teen's relationship, you should create a tone that is comfortable yet concerned, adds Danielle Roeske, PsyD, vice president of residential services at Newport Healthcare. "Allow them the opportunity to share without being lectured or criticized. Be inquisitive, supportive, and non-judgmental."

What Are the Signs of an Abusive Relationship?

While it can be hard to recognize the signs of abuse, there are some telltale signs. If your child's partner, for example, is controlling or possessive, that can be a red flag. Name calling and bullying are also problematic, as are unexplained marks, scratches, or bruises. And if your child withdraws from you and/or their other family members and friends, you should take note. Many abusers isolate their victims.

Other warning signs of abuse include:

  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Extreme agitation
  • Loss of interest in beloved activities
  • Falling grades
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

That said, it is important to note that it can be hard to recognize abuse. If you're not sure if you are being abused, or if you suspect a friend or family member is, ask for (and get) help.

How Can You Help Your Child Leave an Abusive Relationship?

If your child is being abused, know that there is both help and hope. Millions of people escape (and survive) abusive relationships.

"If your child has opened up to you about abuse, thank them for trusting you to help," says Swiecicki. "Empower them to come up with solutions to ending the relationship and ask how they will feel best supported by you. Ask them how they think their partner might react and make a plan for safety." Safety plans, for example, include strategies and actions an individual can take to ensure their safety while in an abusive relationship. It will also outline the steps they can (and should) take to end it.

"If physical violence has been part of the relationship, encourage your teen to talk with law enforcement and/or request an order of protection," adds Swiecicki. "And finally, don't feel like you have to do everything yourself. There are victim services agencies in every state in the United States. Look for a local Children's Advocacy Center to connect you with local resources."

That said, if you or your child are in imminent danger, it is important you get help immediately. Call 911 and tell them your name and where you are so you can get assistance.

What Other Resources Are Available To Help Someone in an Abusive Relationship?

There are numerous resources available to and for abused teens, tweens, and young adults in abusive relationships including:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Are you the victim of domestic violence? If so, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also text "START" to 88788.
  • RAINN: If you or your loved one are being sexually abused, RAINN offers a slew of resources. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. Speak to a trained counselor through their online chat system and/or download the RAINN app, which gives survivors of sexual violence ongoing support, self-care tools, and information.
  • Crisis Text Line: Designed to help individuals through trying, difficult, and even dangerous situations, Crisis Text Line offers help, support, and resources to victims of physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse. Text 741-741 to speak to a trained crisis counselor.

What Can You Do if Your Child or Loved One Refuses To Leave an Abusive Relationship?

While no parent wants to see their child deal with an abusive situation, it is important to note that you cannot make your loved one leave. You can talk with them—and listen to them. You can offer resources and support, and you can help them create a safety plan. In short, you can be there in many different ways. But you cannot make the decision for them. Your child must leave if and when they are ready.

"The best thing to do is stay in contact with your child and keep the lines of communication open by showing them empathy and acceptance," says Nassour. "You can't make someone leave a relationship before they are ready, but you can gently remind them that their happiness and safety are important, and that you will always be there if they need help."

It's also important to avoid ultimatums or punishment. "Continue to be there for your child and avoid threatening to cut them off as punishment for not doing what you think they should do," Roeske adds. "This will only push them further away and could be even more dangerous."

For more information about dating violence and abuse and/or to get help, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence's website or call 911.

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