Early relationships in the middle and older adolescence years are, how should we describe it—intense and emotionally charged. Remember Romeo and Juliet, the 13-year-olds from feuding families that Shakespeare tragically paired together in 15th century Verona? With good reason, we mythologize love in adolescence, with its power to plant in our hormonally-fertilized psyches the seeds of memories that will grow more and more sentimental to us into old age. But along with learning about what it feels like to hold hands at the mall, and to sneak a kiss on the patio steps, it’s also a time for teens to learn important concepts such as boundaries, autonomy, and the right to say “No” without consequences.
Jana and Chris didn’t realize that their 16-year-old son Michael, was unprepared in any of these lessons soon after he started going out with a new girl he had met through a friend. “He seemed honestly happy, but he was really good at hiding what was going on,” Chris describes. “We didn’t find out until later how manipulative his girlfriend was with him. He just wouldn’t tell us the truth. I guess he felt like he was protecting her.”
Chris and Jana noticed that Michael was becoming increasingly irritable and moody. He was spending more late hours with her on the phone. They realized it was much more serious than they imagined when they walked in on him in his room and he clumsily tried to hide a razor blade under his pillow. “She was hurting herself, it turns out,” Chris reveals, “and she kept trying to get him to do it by telling him it would help him understand how she felt. I mean, we thought this was insane. We were really angry with this girl, but it was just as surprising to us that he was actually going to do it. He’s a sensitive kid, but that just wasn’t anything he had ever tried before. For us, it was a wake-up call about how we had to do more than just trust him.”
Chris and Jane aren’t alone in their situation. A Family Circle magazine survey revealed that 25 percent of teens have experienced harassment in dating relationships, 71 percent have had rumors spread about them by partners, and 75 percent of parents report not knowing about their teen being physically hurt or bruised by their boyfriend or girlfriend.
Often, parents are surprised to find that their teens’ boyfriend and girlfriend relationships can become frightening mine-fields in a short period of time. And it is often the psychological features of the situation that are the most harmful and can be emotionally damaging for a long time afterward. In these types of relationships, risk-taking behaviors are often solicited by a boyfriend or girlfriend as evidence of caring. Emotions become currency, or bargaining points, and distort normal feelings of caring and affection that we would want our teens to carry into their adult relationships. It isn’t unusual for adolescents who are less emotionally sophisticated or who have lost a parent through divorce or death to be the most vulnerable in these situations.
Parents may have difficulty detecting this problem until several incidents have already taken place, and long-term emotional changes have already occurred. Even single episodes—being pressured to send an inappropriate cell phone picture that is later forwarded to other teens, for example, leads to immediate feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame. In some very unfortunate cases, teens may have thoughts or fantasies of suicide as a way of ending their situation. How can parents improve their monitoring of the signs of dysfunctional teen dating and relationships when teens can be so secretive and indirect? There are a few early signs that should cue parents that open communication about what is happening is needed immediately:
- Is your adolescent more negative or critical of him/herself or others? Irritability (not due to late night texting) can be an early signal of a change in mood. Other changes such as weight gain, sleeping more than usual, or not engaging in typical hygiene or make-up routines might be signs of relationship stress.
- Keeping parents at arm’s length is a normal developmental feature of being a teen, but a drastic increase in secrecy or avoiding contact with parents raises concerns. Teens will shut the door to have private conversations in their relationships if this is allowed by parents, but keeping the door closed for hours may be more than privacy-seeking.
- Constant arguing or fighting with a boyfriend or girlfriend raises some of the same concerns that it does with adult relationships. This is especially true if the arguments consist entirely of accusations or threats and ultimatums, or if they deteriorate into name calling.
- Controlling behavior is not a sign of caring. If a boyfriend or girlfriend is requiring “checking in” or other forms of control, then the relationship is headed in a negative direction.
- Mine-field relationships are “closed systems” and don’t tolerate shared attention. Is your teen being encouraged to drop certain friendships entirely, or to have to choose between a boy/girlfriend and other friends?
- Signs of “boundary violations” are an early indication of trouble. These might include a boyfriend or girlfriend disregarding signals your teen might be trying to communicate about limits on physical affection or sexual contact, or more aggressive violations such as punching a car window, “teasing” by hurting a pet, or endlessly calling following an argument.
Parents do need to intervene in many of these situations because teens are limited in the skills and tools they possess to stop behaviors that are frightening them. Adolescents may not have the perspective or the right words to change directions in a problematic relationship, or to counter accusations from their boyfriend or girlfriend. Should parents disallow relationships altogether until their children are older? This might be the best fit for some families, but if dating and having a boyfriend or girlfriend is permitted, then parents need to educate teens on choices and responses that are available when relationships are unhealthy.
Match the response to the situation. The appropriate intervention for parents is the one that matches the situation involved. If several incidents have already occurred, then more parental involvement is needed. In some cases, this might include contacting the parents of the other teen and discussing concerns about the kind of communication and behavior occurring in the relationship.
Parents should set limits on the type of communication that is acceptable, for example, requiring teens to end phone calls that involve accusatory name-calling or manipulative threats. As we have discussed, ending the relationship may be the step to take, although parents should realize that this will not eliminate feelings of attachment that occur even in abusive relationships.
You may be surprised at how submissive and reactive your child has already become in response to a dysfunctional boyfriend or girlfriend. The challenge in any limit-setting situation is to help your son or daughter understand that your decisions are a healthy response to an unhealthy situation, as your child will not see it that way.
Expressing love and support while setting limits, holding back your own anger over your child’s response, and repeating that healthy relationships make people feel good rather than depressed, are all positive strategies when setting unwanted limits. Perhaps you were able to spot trouble early in the situation, maybe finding a hurtful or abusive online chat from your teen’s boyfriend or girlfriend. In these instances, the best approach might be to encourage non-judgmental discussion about what is happening in the relationship and the feelings your teen is having in the situation.
Reading some materials or sections of a book about healthy versus unhealthy relationships together could provide the kind of support your child will tolerate. There are excellent resources available for parents and teens who are experiencing this stressful and often frightening situation. The Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System provides a list of warning signs of bad teen relationships that can be a discussion starter. For peer support, the organization Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships (TEAR) offers support and information for teens online. The National Teen Dating Hotline also offers live support and guidance through their phone lines at (866) 331-9474. Waiting and hoping that a mine-field relationship gets better is never a good strategy. Whatever the intervention, take action early and reduce the psychological damage that is the result of hurtful or abusive teen relationships.