Ask NCFY: How Can Youth Workers Recognize Teen Dating Abuse?

Photograph of a teen girl with her hands in her hair.

Q: I work with young people who often confide to me about their boyfriends or girlfriends. Sometimes the details don’t sound healthy to me. How can I know if a young person is in a violent dating relationship? And what can I do to help?

A: Dating abuse can be difficult for outside observers to detect, says Megan Belden, a staff attorney in the Washington office of the anti-dating violence group Break the Cycle. Belden, who provides legal aid to Washington teens in violent relationships, says to look for a partner who checks the young person’s phone or email without permission, puts them down regularly, isolates them from family and friends, falsely accuses them of dishonesty or infidelity, or tells them what to wear or where to go.

Belden says unhealthy behaviors don’t always mean there is abuse, but they can be warning signs. In an abusive relationship, they will escalate over time, so keep an eye and ear open for a worsening situation, she says.

Abusive relationships often start intensely and move fast, says Lynne Russell, president of Dating Abuse Stops Here, or DASH, an advocacy group in Oak Hill, VA. “There’s lots of gifts and talk of future plans. Oftentimes, the girl doesn’t realize that it’s an abusive relationship.”

Some abusive partners, Russell says, might have a history of discipline problems, have difficulty sticking to rules, abuse drugs or alcohol, or show anger towards other people in addition to their romantic partner. But that’s not always the case.

When you see things that concern or worry you, talk to the young person, Belden says.  “A lot of young people don’t know what a healthy relationship is, so it’s important to say, ‘It’s not cool when she’s calling you that name or when he’s telling you what to wear. You can make those decisions yourself,’” she says. But don’t judge, and don’t try to make decisions for the youth.

“It’s important to see that [the abuser] may be a person the young person loves,” Belden says. “A lot of times [victims] just want the abuse to stop” rather wanting the relationship to end.

Russell says being patient is also important. “The hardest thing is getting the person to recognize that the relationship is toxic,” she says. And even when they do, “It can take seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Hang in there because that person will need your love and support.”

Check in with the young person regularly, even if they don’t leave the abuser. Encourage them to see a peer advisor or call a dating violence hotline. When a young person does break off an abusive relationship, help them devise a safety plan and tell them what resources are available at nearby domestic violence agencies.

Most important, whatever the situation, support the young person's decisions and don’t support self-blame, Belden says. “It’s important to speak up and say, ‘I care about you, I’m worried,’ to say you’re there for them.”

More Information

Break the Cycle’s “Dating Violence 101”

DASH’s tips for creating a safety plan

Dating abuse and domestic violence hotlines

Love Is Respect’s “Healthy Relationships Quiz”

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