What is an abusive relationship and how can children spot when someone is trying to exercise too much control over them? Read our advice and information for parents
Abusive individuals often attempt to control their partner’s lives. This may mean dictating what clothes they wear, what they think and say, and the people they see.
They need to separate their targets from other people so they will become isolated and dependent.
In the early stages of a relationship, this can easily be confused with being besotted by a new person – the stage when you may spend all your time thinking, talking about and being with the amazing person you’ve just met.
Warning bells should ring if this behaviour continues and someone your child is meeting online or off is appearing to control how often they see other friends and family, how they dress, what they do and where they go.
Trust and communication
Healthy relationships are built on trust and openness. If your child tells you their boyfriend or girlfriend is often suspicious about what they're getting up to, or shows a lot of jealousy, it might be helpful to talk to them in a general way about what makes relationships good. Ask them about their friends’ relationships, for example, or other family members. Which ones do they think work best? Why are they working well?
As a parent, the more trusting and open you’re able to be in your own relationships, the better template your child will have for theirs. If you’re dishonest and evasive with them, they're more likely to see that as normal and expect it from others, so be prepared to talk about your own present and past relationships, and be truthful about where things may have gone wrong for you. Share positive stories too, where you've found solutions for problems with friends and partners, to show how good relationships should work.
Abusers destroy the self-esteem and confidence of their victims. They may say hurtful things about appearance, intelligence or fashion sense. Young people are insecure enough already, without this kind of 'help'. Support your child's self-esteem by praising them for things they do well, teaching them to be realistic about body image and airbrushed (or PhotoShopped) celebrities on social media, and stressing that no one who cares about them will try to tear them down. Check out our self-esteem resources here.
The best relationships often encourage us to try new things, like a new sport or an adventurous food. But young people in relationships are sometimes put under pressure to do things they don't want to do, including engaging in sexual activity before they're ready, or sharing naked photos online. Make sure your child understands that they have the right to say no and that anyone who cares about them should respect that. And remind them that once an image is out there, you don't control it any more.
It’s all right to argue. It's even fine to be angry, if the emotion is justified and honestly expressed. But you need to be able to control your anger. Violence in relationships is never right and no one should have to accept it.
Make sure your child knows that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to disagree. And make sure they know they can always come to you for support if they’re scared, or confused, about the way a partner is treating them.
Listen, don't judge, and be there when they need you
If your child is in a relationship with someone you believe is harming them, telling them to stop may result in them clamming up and either sticking to the relationship more stubbornly, or hiding it from you. It's important to keep the lines of communciation open, so let them know that whatever happens, you will listen to them and not get angry.
Once they decide the relationship is over, offer practical support, like helping them to block the abusive partner's mobile number and/or on social media. Help them rebuild their self-esteem if it's been knocked. Check out the advice below.
- Support from Refuge for young people worried their partner may be controlling them.
- Is this love? The FPA's guide to healthy and unhealthy relationships.
- 20 signs your partner is controlling you.
- Healthy and unhealthy relationships by Childline.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: September 2014
Updated: May 2018