How Parents Can Help Their Teen and Adult Children in Toxic Relationships

One of the most frustrating and frightening experiences a parent can have is to watch their child, no matter how old, fall prey to the grips of a toxic partner.

The various stages of a child’s life come with new parenting challenges. But the sleep-deprivation of infancy and those terrible twos can seem like nothing when it feels as though you’re losing your young adult to a cult.

As they become more independent, we have less control, and it’s much harder to exert a strong influence. This is exactly why as parents, we must approach with an extraordinary level of sensitivity and self-control when attempting to get them to realize what danger they may be in.

One of the most frustrating and frightening experiences a parent can have is to watch their child, no matter how old, fall prey to the grips of a toxic partner. 

The various stages of a child’s life come with new parenting challenges. But the sleep-deprivation of infancy and those terrible twos can seem like nothing when it feels as though you’re losing your young adult to a cult.  

As they become more independent, we have less control, and it’s much harder to exert a strong influence. This is exactly why as parents, we must approach with an extraordinary level of sensitivity and self-control when attempting to get them to realize what danger they may be in.

What is dating violence?

Though most people imagine relationship violence as mainly physical, it can take on many forms, including emotional, psychological, sexual, and digital. It can occur in person, or electronically. Stalking is also part of the equation. Keep in mind that dating violence also can occur during, as well as after, a relationship has ended.

So how do you know if your child’s partner is abusive, or just a jerk?

The essence of abuse involves control and power over another person, and this will show as an imbalance in the relationship, where one person’s wants dominate the other’s. There is always a lack of respect for boundaries.

What can be confusing is that people are often flattered by jealousy and constant texting, but these behaviors are sometimes the first attempts to exert control, and when a relationship also moves into a serious direction way too quickly, this may raise a big red flag.

From the article, 7 Warning Signs Your Teen Is in an Unhealthy Relationship,” writer Amy Morin provides several other indicators to look out for, including:

  • A very possessive partner, who often will call or text incessantly. This may cause a person to be panicked if they don’t respond immediately to their partner’s constant checking in. Be very wary if you notice they always feel the need to tell the partner where they are, who with, and what they’re doing.
  • Your child’s giving up favorite activities or hobbies. The partner may disrespect their goals, which not only signals that the partner doesn’t appreciate your son/daughter, but can contribute to a loss of a sense of identity.
  • Unexplained visible injuries, such as scratches, red marks, or black eyes.
  • Frequent apologies, which can signal trying to appease a partner all the time. Keep in mind that toxic people have notoriously bad tempers, which leads to their partners being very careful about doing anything to avoid their rage. Morin says that “apologizing for not calling, for calling too late, for spending too much time with friends—all of those things might be indicators he’s afraid of his partner.” 
  • Isolation from friends and family. Besides controlling another person’s time, criticizing their family and friends is a common way to cut off their support system.

Where to begin?

When you notice any of the above, you might want to have a private, one-on-one conversation and ask how things are going. If your child does not immediately open up, you can voice your concerns regarding specific observations you’ve made. Also, remember:

  • Make yourself emotionally available.
  • Spend more time listening than talking.
  • Keep the conversation friendly, not preachy.

According to the article, “11 Steps to Take If You Suspect Your Adult Child Is In An Unhealthy Relationship” by Grown and Flown, one effective technique is to talk openly about your own relationship troubles, to help them feel as though you understand them, as though it were “more of an equal exchange between two friends — not like a therapist and a patient or a parent and a child.” 

To do this, when discussing your child’s relationship, try the following:

  • Don’t freak out over anything they want to share.
  • Don’t give advice unless asked.
  • Don’t point out their failures and mistakes.

The last thing you want to do is to have your son or daughter feel too ashamed to talk to you. Hiding the relationship puts them at greater risk for harm.

Verywell Family’s parenting website notes that most teens and young adults “yearn for the approval and acceptance of their parents, even if they claim otherwise. Keep this in mind when you do discuss the relationship, and remember that it is wise to not push… or try to control the situation.

“You need to be sure you are keeping any hostile disapproval under wraps. The last thing any parent wants to do is push their teen closer to their partner and further from themselves.”

A helpful way to get started is to ask open-ended questions which lead to thinking of possibilities, such as:

“What do you think is making you stay in this relationship?

“Have you ever thought about leaving?

“What do you think would happen if you two broke up?

“How would your life change if you were single again?”

Conversely, DO NOT ask questions that begin with “Why?” which can be perceived as threatening and judgmental, such as “Why are you with him/her?” or “Why don’t you just leave?!”

Your main goal is to make your child figure out for him/herself that the relationship is not a good fit.

This means that they have to be allowed to make their own choices unless they are at immediate risk for harm. If you tell them what to do, you are basically doing the exact same thing as their abuser – making decisions for them.

I’m sure you want to shout, “JUST BREAK UP WITH THE “&%@$!” Restrain yourself!

Do not insult the abuser.

This can be extraordinarily difficult, as we so want to “save” our children. But relationship abuse and domestic violence are complex and irrational, and often involve trauma bonding and loyalty.

It is important to keep in mind that most victims of abuse often feel embarrassed, afraid, or protective of their partners. They will excuse the bad behavior, and look to point out the partner’s good traits in order to justify staying in the relationship. 

When you put down the toxic person, the victim is more likely to defend them and write YOU off.

What you can do instead is to point out the abusive behavior. 

A very important step, if your young adult does plan to end things, is to create a safety plan. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-breakup. While remaining calm, it is highly recommended that you involve the free resources of a domestic violence center, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to make sure that all of the bases are covered if there is any concern.

Be prepared to get pushback, and attempts to downplay the abuse – these are normal reactions. Do whatever you can to help your child feel as though they are in control of the situation.

But what if none of this works?

It probably won’t, at least the first time. Or the second. This is why it’s necessary to stay patient, as it will be an emotional rollercoaster. Your main goal is not to get them to admit that they are in an abusive situation; rather, it is to show that you care and are emotionally available to support them when they need you. Hope for and expect several conversations in the future. 

If it feels hopeless, you may want to enlist the help of a neutral person to speak to your child, such as a friend or relationship counselor.

In the meantime, continue to

  1. Let them know it’s not their fault, and that they are not alone.
  2. Allow them to make their own decisions, which hopefully will lead to regaining self-confidence and taking control of their own lives.
  3. Encourage them to rekindle relationships with friends and family, while spending quality time with them yourself.
  4. Urge them to stay true to their life goals, and not allow the partner to hold them back.
  5. Highlight their strengths. Note that they deserve to be treated with respect, and be with a partner who will cherish them while looking out for their best interests.

Sometimes, and with your help, your child will eventually recognize that the relationship is unhealthy and take action. But be aware that it is not easy, and there are many other factors involved which are simply out of your control.