This is a hard one. Please, please, equip yourself and read to the end rather than thinking it doesn’t apply to you.
At 19 I found myself in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. It didn’t’ start that way, but a year in I was so broken I didn’t know how to get out.
He was clean cut, chiseled, yet not over the top cool or fake. We could laugh and talk, and he was kind to me… at least at first. The hurtful comments about my mannerisms, then my body, were unsettling yet I brushed them off as him having a bad day, always wondering what I did and trying to be better.
My friends questioned me a few times and I assured them I was fine, he was just a bit hot headed.
Fast forward to him screaming at me to get naked, which I did because I wanted equally to be desired, and felt afraid. As I stood there, him fully dressed, he said the most awful things about my body and how repulsed he was. When the humiliation was over, I got dressed quickly and quietly, with tears running down my face.
A few months later we got into an argument and he grabbed my arms so hard I had bruises where his thumbs dug into my biceps. Then there was the time my neck bruised after he was ‘jokingly’ holding me down, laughing through it all. He was always ‘just joking’.
That’s when you left, right??!!
No. It took me another year to completely get out and end it. 😳😬
Why did it take so long?
Because there’s underlying emotional currents that make even the most obviously toxic relationships feel exciting and loving to your teen.
It’s alarming to watch your teen change before your eyes, often becoming unrecognizable. They might be more emotional or angry, show drastic changes in likes and dislikes, or increasingly withdraw from friends and family life even more than the average adolescent brain changes. When it’s linked to a specific relationship – romantic or platonic – it becomes cause for serious concern.
The Struggle to Intervene
Your instinct to protect your child is strong, even hijacking your own reasoning brain. You’ll drive anywhere, bust through doors, move your teen to a new school, involve police, ground them for life, whatever it takes to keep them safe.
Anything else feels passive and reckless, yet conventional parenting strategies might not work as expected.
Forced Endings Fail
When it comes to toxic relationships, direct intervention often backfires. The more you try to pull your teen away by force or control, odds are they move closer to the very relationship you’re trying to save them from.
Plus, you’re using the same force, fear, and control your teen is experiencing in their relationship! Now they have two competing examples of love but neither one feels good. Their relationship is more enticing than their perception of your overbearing ways, so they pick the toxic relationship every time.
Forcing your teen to end their relationship before they’re ready often creates more sneaky behaviours, lying, or leaving for periods of time with no contact. That relationship is their fix, their drug, and no amount of controls will calm their craving.
Research shows the best and lasting results come from a counterintuitive approach – a compassionate invitation and modeling healthy relationship skills including unconditional love with boundaries and respect.
“What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me” – Haddaway
Teens lack an understanding of healthy relationships, especially romantic ones, regardless of what you believe you’ve shown them or how obvious it seems. They’re bombarded with media messages promoting codependency and patriarchal norms. These powerful influences, coupled with their natural insecurity and quest for identity, can lead them to seek validation in unhealthy relationships.
Love bombing – your teen is showered with positive attention or gifts creating an intoxicating and addictive experience which puts them at risk to be manipulated or controlled.
Trauma bonding – emotional reactivity, an activated stress response, and jealously are perceived as love and passionate connection in a romanticized version of submission, seduction, and control.
Codependency – an addictive cycle of caretaking and pleasing partners to feed low self-esteem to feel loved until they disconnect from their own feelings/beliefs/thoughts.
Acknowledging these factors is crucial in understanding why your teen might end up in a toxic relationship. Blaming their partner won’t help because no matter how hard this is, it takes two.
The Day I Was Done
Believe it or not, the first step after coming to terms with the reality of my situation wasn’t leaving my boyfriend. Loving myself was.
I needed to find myself, build my confidence and courage to be strong enough to make the many attempts to leave until it was finally over. I found positive outlets like drop-in volleyball, connected with high school friends, and a new church, all with great people who affirmed and appreciated me.
I forgave myself every time I went back because it was familiar, and he was persuasive. Each time I gave less of myself and left sooner than the last time.
✅ A Counterintuitive Approach to Help Your Teen
- Find the Positive: Affirm your teen’s character and their positive relationship skills without endorsing the toxic aspects.
- Ask Curious Questions: Engage with your teen by asking non-judgmental, curious questions about their relationship and how they feel in it. This encourages reflection and builds emotional safety.
- Set Healthy Boundaries: This demonstrates to your teen that all relationships – including the one with you – can feel loving and respectful.
- Be Inclusive, with Limits: Invite your teen’s partner into your home in controlled settings. This shows your teen that you respect their choices while maintaining your values and boundaries.
- Model Healthy Relationships and Conflict: Demonstrate what healthy relationships and constructive conflict look like so your teen experiences respectful and loving interactions should be.
- Be the honey: Showing your teen consistent, compassionate love might feel like doing nothing, but you’re amplifying healthy love without the painful price tag. This also makes you the safe landing place for them to come back to.
❌ Stay away from:
Trash talk: Anything negative you say about your teen’s partner is a cut against your teen and drives them further away.
Listen over lecture: Conversations that become lectures leave your teen feeling criticized and judged, driving them away and back to the toxic relationship.
Empowering Yourself and Your Teen
It’s vital to remember that you haven’t failed as a parent. The challenges your teen faces in their relationships are complex and influenced by a myriad of factors outside your control. However, you can make a significant difference by offering them a safe, empathetic environment where they feel heard and understood.
If you feel it’s necessary, contact your local agencies for domestic abuse or addiction to find resources available based on your situation.
Regardless of the responses you get, there’s steps you can take now to get your teen back.
“We had a great relationship, but when he started to get in trouble, I focused more on discipline and ensuring it did not happen again rather than why it was happening. I have made progress, working hard at it every day.”
“Following Aly Pain’s advice, and really just getting into open non-judgmental conversations instead of telling her what she can and can’t do … was definitely more productive in my house. It made a huge difference and I now have a good and open relationship with my almost 17 year old. That is not to say that he doesn’t do things that I disapprove of but he is honest and respectful and at this age that feels like the best I can ask for.”
Guiding your teen out of a toxic relationship and back to believing they’re worth more is possible with support, patience, and proven tools. And it doesn’t have to feel complicated.
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Your teen needs your love and compassion more than ever to contrast the control and manipulation they’re experiencing. Now’s the time to act.
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