Unfortunately, abusive dating relationships occur. This is even true with teenagers. When we talk about abuse, we typically think of three types: emotional, physical and sexual. While this is definitely an uncomfortable topic, it is one I see in my office with my teenage clients at least once per month. Considering I limit my caseload to 15 clients per week, that’s astoundingly common.
In today’s post I will comment on emotional abuse in teen dating relationships. I will cover physical and sexual abuse in the next two blog posts.
Emotional abuse is the most common form discussed by my clients. This happens when a client has a boyfriend or girlfriend who says and does things to manipulate a certain outcome. I have had several clients who try to break up with someone only to receive a text or phone call that their new ex plans to commit suicide. Now my client feels responsible and is put in a place of deep distress. My client then doesn’t know what to do, and starts to talk with the ex again. They might end up afraid to break it off because the significant other is constantly telling them, “I cannot go on without you.” Imagine your teenager trying to deal with this type of pressure; it is sickening. As a counselor I feel righteous anger (although I don’t express it unless it is therapeutically beneficial to the teen) when one of my clients is being manipulated this way. I do tell my teenage client what emotional abuse is, and we work at setting appropriate boundaries. This has gone as far as helping a couple of clients consider filing temporary restraining orders for harassment.
Emotional abuse can also take the form of constant berating. If your teen is in a relationship where they’ve become isolated from all their friends, it’s cause for concern. As time passes the relationship often sours in these conditions. Your teenager becomes lonely and wholly dependent on their boyfriend or girlfriend. Then their significant other starts to just not call, or becomes mean. They call your child names sometimes. They text your child mean things. Your adolescent no longer has the self-esteem to just cut off the relationship. Or, they might try to end it and then the significant other promises all kinds of wonderful changes; your teenager believes them and stays in the relationship.
Parents, I’m sorry to tell you that emotional abuse doesn’t stop there. It can look like your teenager getting involved with someone who seems really great at first. Eventually they get involved with drugs or alcohol. Your child never had any interest in this. Because your teen is naive, they lie for them, give money to them, and sometimes will even drink or use drugs just to be with them. It’s nauseating to watch your child whom you’ve always been close with be pulled from you by someone you’ve grown to detest; it seems like they’re stealing your child’s very soul. I know that sounds dramatic, but if you talked with some of the parents I’ve sat with, you’d think it was a most apt description.
The final way I’ve seen my teen counseling clients become emotionally abused in a relationship is financial. I’ve seen the relationship get out of balance to where your teen feels like they have to constantly impress their significant other to keep them around. They start to spend money. They will take this so far that they will spend everything they have. Maybe you’ve always been careful to teach them good saving habits, and as a result they have built up a nice savings account. Suddenly they’re buying Disney passes, going on ski trips, and investing in hobbies that seem like they’re out of left field. What’s worse is that they are paying for their girlfriend or boyfriend too. Here’s how far I’ve seen this go: One young girl got a boyfriend whose single mother did not choose to work (but was perfectly capable of doing so). After a few months the young girl never had the car her parents had bought her because she was constantly lending it to “his poor mom.”
I know this is scary stuff. If you’re in the position where some of what you’re reading rings true, give me a call. I’m happy to talk with you about your situation. Maybe we’ll decide counseling is a good idea, and maybe not. Either way you need support as you help extricate your teen from their toxic, emotionally abusive relationship.
I will write about physical abuse in the next post, and sexual abuse in the following one.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT