11 Steps to Take If You Suspect Your Adult Child Is In An Unhealthy Relationship

As a parent, it can be incredibly scary to think about your adult child being in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. But the reality is that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4 guys will be in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives. (1)

How parents can help their teens if they suspect they are in an abusive relationship.

What to know about abusive relationships

That’s over 1.5 million teens a year ! (2) What’s worse is that young women between the ages of 16-24 are most at risk for dating abuse. (3)  And if you haven’t talked to your teen or young adult about what a healthy relationship consists of, it’s likely that their idea of #RelationshipGoals comes from what they see on TV, what they hear in music, and what their friends tell them – eek!

We at the One Love Foundation work to make sure that young people across the country know and understand the warning signs of relationship abuse. Not only is abuse traumatic for anyone who experiences it, it is also incredibly dangerous and can be life-threatening.

If you think that your teen is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship it can be difficult to know what to do. You may want to help, but be scared to distance them or lose their trust, or feel as though it is not your place to intervene in their relationship. All of these feelings are normal, but at One Love we believe the most important thing you can do as parent is start a conversation.

What parents can do if they suspect their teen or young adult is in an abusive relationship

1. Be observant and look for signs.

Unhealthy relationships are all about power and control, and lack mutual respect or boundaries. If you feel like your child is spending a lot of time with their partner and less time on school, hanging with friends or other activities, that’s a warning sign. It’s also not a good sign if your teen feels the need to always check their phone, as controlling partners typically demand 24/7 immediate responses to their texts or calls.

If your child is away at college, ask them how their social life is going to get a sense of how much time they are spending with their partner versus their friends and look out for behavior changes. It’s natural that college relationships take up a lot of your child’s time, but if they seem to always be with their partner, that could indicate that something might be off. For more on the signs of abuse, you can check out these 10 signs on One Love’s website.

2. Calmly start a conversation with your teen.

Ask them to talk one-on-one in a private setting. If your child is away at school, consider making a trip to visit them or asking them to call you when they are alone. Start by calmly voicing your concern for them. It is likely that they feel as though things are already chaotic enough in their life so to best help them, you will need to be a steady support with whom they can talk openly and peacefully.

If you don’t panic and do your best to make them feel safe, then it is pretty likely that they will continue to seek your advice. You don’t want to scare them by worrying, starting an argument or blaming them.

3. Be supportive of their situation.

Listen to them and let them open up about the situation on their own terms. Don’t be forceful with the conversation. It may be very hard for your child to talk about their relationship, but remind them that they are not alone and that you only want to help.

4. Focus on the unhealthy behaviors.

The focus of the conversation should be on the unhealthy behaviors in the relationship, not on their partner. Sometimes, our instinct is to immediately label the relationship as “abusive” to drive home the severity of the situation. This instinct, however, can cause them to retreat and shut down. Instead, focus on the specific behaviors you’re seeing and how that behavior makes them feel.

For example, saying something like “It seems like your partner wants to know where you are a lot and is always texting and calling – how does that make you feel?” pinpoints the specific behavior and gets them to think about how it makes them feel.

You can also gently point out that certain behaviors seem unhealthy and be honest about how you would feel if someone did it to you. This is one of the first steps in getting your child to understand what is and is not an appropriate behavior in a relationship. Help them to understand for themselves that something is off about the relationship and acknowledge that their feelings are legitimate.

5. Keep the conversation friendly, not preachy.

Very few people in abusive relationships recognize themselves as victims and it’s pretty likely that your child doesn’t want to be viewed that way either! If you want to be helpful, make yourself emotionally available. One way to reassure your child that you are not judging them is to normalize the situation.

Talk openly about your own experiences with relationship troubles to help them feel as though they are not alone and like you understand what they are going through. Try to make it feel like an equal exchange between two friends — not like a therapist and a patient or a parent and a child.

6. Don’t place the blame on them.

Help your teen or young adult to understand that the behaviors they are experiencing are not normal, and that it is NOT their fault their partner is acting this way. They may feel personally responsible for their partner’s behavior or as though they brought on the abuse, but assure them that this is not the case. Everyone is responsible for their own behavior, and no matter what the reason, abuse is never okay.

7. Allow your child to make their own decision.

This can be especially hard to do as a parent, but if your grown child is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, the last thing you want to do is tell them to “just break up!” Relationship abuse is very complex and your child may be experiencing some form of trauma bonding or loyalty to their partner. Also, your child is already dealing with a controlling and manipulative partner and the last thing that they need is for you to mimic those behaviors by telling them what to do.

8. Offer solutions to them.

The best way for you to help your teen or young adult is to offer options to them. Don’t push any one of them in particular but instead let them know that you will support them no matter what they decide to do. Some of these options include:

  • Visiting your local domestic violence center or behavioral health center
  • Talking to a school counselor
  • Or even calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Depending on how ready your child is to open up, they may feel more comfortable vetting the situation with someone anonymously over the phone, or they may want to have the conversation in person with someone at school who can help.

If your teen or young adult child is planning to end things with their partner, you should create a safety plan with them because the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-break up. Maintain a calm approach when dealing with the situation and be open to what your child is most comfortable with. At the suggestion of seeking help, it is possible that they may try to cover up or down play the abuse. Reassure them that they are the expert in their own life and make them feel as though they are in control of the situation.

9. If there’s any risk of danger, call the police.

If your child is in immediate danger, either self-harm or harm inflicted by another person, you should alert authorities (i.e., school security or 911) right away. Even if you think they will feel betrayed or angry with you for going to the police, saving someone’s life is the most important thing. Relationship abuse can be fatal and you should not hesitate to take serious action if you think that anyone is at risk for physical or sexual harm.

10. Expect more conversations in the future.

The first time you have this conversation with your teen or young adult child, they may admit a few things that have happened and then suddenly pull away or take it back. You do not have to get them to change their mind completely about their partner and you don’t need them to “admit” that they are being abused. The goal of the conversation is to let them know that you care and that you are available for them when they need to talk.

It is not likely for the situation to be resolved neatly after one conversation, so you should expect to have more talks like this. Be patient through the process, and know that you are doing the right thing by talking to them about this difficult topic. Let your child know that you support them and that you are there for them should they need you.

11. Don’t get discouraged if they refuse to talk to you.

If you’re having trouble talking to your child about their relationship or if they refuse to open up to you, try having someone else that they are close with like a friend, cousin, or teacher speak with them. As their parent, your child might be reluctant to divulge details about their relationship to you, be afraid to get in trouble, or worry about upsetting you by sharing certain information.

Remind them that you are on their side and that they won’t be punished for anything that may have happened. The most important thing is that they get help for their situation, whether it’s from you or from someone else that they trust, so encourage them to ask for help.

If you want more information on how you can help someone in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, consult some of these real-time resources or call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get advice.

If you’d like to get involved with One Love’s national movement to end relationship abuse, learn more about our work at www.joinonelove.org.


(1) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010 (CDC) 

(2) Physical Dating Violence Among High School Students—United States, 2003,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 19, 2006, Vol. 55, No. 19  (CDC)

(3) Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice and Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the United States, 1993-2004. Dec. 2006

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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