Often, during adolescence, teens are beginning to disconnect from their families and connect more with their peers. It can be challenging for adults and children alike to figure out what healthy relationships look like.
How can you tell if a relationship is just normal intense adolescent bonding and or if it has veered into something obsessive and potentially destructive? Parents often think of physical abuse when it comes to unhealthy relationships, yet emotional and verbal abuse can be just as significant.
Having spent several years working with young women in a recovery center, I’ve learned parents should watch out for these seven symptoms:
Frequent Check Ins
Parents often cut back on supervising their teens online at this age, and technology can contribute to unhealthy relationships. If your teen feels a need to “check in” with a love interest whenever she leaves one location for another, for example, that may be an indication that she’s in a controlling relationship. (In extreme cases, a person can add a tracking device to another person’s phone without them knowing it.)
Changes in Appearance
It’s not at all unusual for teens to be interested in their appearance but if your daughter starts to make more extreme changes, such as wearing a lot of makeup, for example, she may be trying to please her partner to an unhealthy degree. In one case, a teen girl stopped wearing her favorite pair of jeans with a quarter-size rip in them because her boyfriend accused her of trying to provoke other guys.
Noticeable Weight Change
If your daughter begins a drastic diet, exercises to an extreme or uses laxatives, she may be feeling out of control. Any of these weight loss techniques may indicate she’s trying to regain control over her life. Weight loss may also be linked to an eating disorder, such as bingeing and purging, and can be life-threatening. Weight loss taken to this level may also be a teen’s way of trying to reclaim control over her body. Or she may be trying to change it in the hopes that it will please her boyfriend and he will treat her better.
Becoming emotionally isolated
Girls who are being emotionally or physically controlled tend to be secretive about the relationship, perhaps telling small lies that may grow bigger over time to cover up the control. Even when they are with people they may seem to be on edge and have to frequently check in with their boyfriend. If a teen starts to withdraw from their interests, it may indicate that he or she is being subjected to undue influence from another person. A girl who loved to run track, for example, told me she sacrificed the sport to try to maintain a relationship.
Exhibiting symptoms of depression and pain
Teens who lose interest in activities they used to enjoy and feel they have given their power over to another person may feel depressed. For example, they may feel sad and fatigued, and take no interest in activities they formerly liked. Changes in sleeping habits can also be a sign of depression. Feelings of anxiety and stress associated with abusive relationships may also manifest in pain. For example, a girl may develop gastrointestinal issues that reflect her emotional state.
Taking it out on Themselves
Girls often “act in,” or draw inward when suffering emotionally. They may engage in self-injurious behavior—cutting, burning, overeating, and under-eating and using substances to self-medicate. We have seen many young female patients at the treatment center I work in who began using opiates to numb the reality of an unhealthy relationship.
Becoming involved with a substance abuser
If a child spends a lot of time with someone who is using substances, the abuser may entice that person to start abusing substances as well as way to control him or her. Even if you’re not sure what’s going on—perhaps their boyfriend is skipping classes, acting out or behaving erratically—it may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
If a parent is noticing any of these signs within their child’s relationship they should address the situation. It’s important to communicate that abuse can affect people from all walks of life. Families shouldn’t minimize verbal and psychological abuse; it can have just as significant an impact as physical and sexual abuse.
Adolescence is such an impressionable time; if children can maintain a larger peer group and engage in activities as a group, they have a greater chance of developing healthy relationships. People in healthy relationships respect each others’ values.
Parents who are concerned about their daughters should consider reaching out to a therapist who specializes in adolescent issues. Early intervention could even save a life.