How to Help a Teen Leave an Abusive Relationship

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If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

Every teen deserves to be surrounded by people that are healthy, supportive, and most importantly, safe. If your teen is in a relationship with someone who is hurting them emotionally or physically, it's important that they know that they do not deserve to be treated that way, nor are they to blame.

Likewise, your teen needs to realize that no matter how hard they try to be a good partner, they cannot make the abuse stop. But, they can take steps to keep themselves as safe as possible regardless of their partner's words, actions, and choices.

Often, the first step in accomplishing that task is thinking through how they can take back some control and stay safe and then putting those things into a safety plan. If your teen is in an abusive relationship, you may want to talk to them about putting together a safety plan. Here's everything you need to know about safety planning with your teen.

What Is a Safety Plan?

A safety plan is an individualized plan that includes strategies and actions a teen can take to ensure their safety while in an abusive dating relationship as well as when they are planning to break up and after the relationship has ended.

A safety plan can be developed anytime in a dating relationship and should be reevaluated regularly as the risk factors in the relationship change or escalate.

Overall, a safety plan is designed to keep your teen as safe as possible while they take steps to end the relationship with the person they are dating. When you first mention the idea of a safety plan to your teen, they may not even realize they're in an abusive relationship.

So, you may need to talk to them first about the signs of dating abuse as well as what constitutes a healthy relationship. Try to keep your feelings out of the conversation, especially if you don't like who they are dating. Being judgmental or lacking empathy could cause your teen to shut down.

Ultimately, the decision to break up with an abusive person needs to be your teen's choice. But you can certainly set limits and boundaries as to what they can do and when they can see the person they're dating. Keep in mind, though, that setting too many limits has the potential to backfire and cause your teen to want to stay in the relationship that much more. Instead, help them see why the relationship they're in is not healthy.

Why Your Teen Needs a Plan

When it comes to safety planning for teens, they are in a unique situation because they may attend the same school as the person who abuses them. They also may have the same circle of friends and they may participate in the same activities. So, ending a relationship with someone who is abusing them can be a little more complicated because they may not be able to completely sever all ties with the person.

What's more, teens are often impulsive and emotional and may make decisions in the heat of the moment. Having a safety plan encourages them to slow down and really think about ways they can stay safe. This way, when an unsafe situation arises, they know just what to do. A safety plan also empowers them to think through what they can do to regain control in their lives.

Remember, abuse is about power and control and if your teen is being abused, they likely feel powerless and controlled by their partner. A safety plan will help them reduce some of those feelings of powerlessness and learn how to effectively problem-solve.

Helping Your Teen Through Abuse

While you can't control your teen's actions, leaving an abusive partner can be an urgent situation for your teen's safety.

It can be a good idea to suggest that your teen see a mental health care professional. By speaking with a therapist, they may be able to see that the situation they're in is harmful. You, as their caretaker, may also consider seeing a therapist so that you can cope with the process of trying to get your teen to a safer place.

Because abuse is a painful and life-altering experience for your teen, it can really shake the foundation of their identity and their self-esteem. For this reason, you also may want to work with your teen on identifying and working toward their goals. Doing so helps them focus on the future and where they want to go rather than dwelling on the abuse they're experiencing.

Likewise, it may be helpful for your teen to get in the habit of practicing self-care. They need to recognize that they have value and worth and that they deserve to be treated well, even by themselves.

Specifics of a Safety Plan

The process of safety planning can be very empowering for your teen because it allows them to recognize ways in which they can regain control over their life and their safety.

That said, to be effective, a safety plan must be holistic and take into consideration all aspects of your teen's life. This means considering safety at home, at school, at work, during extracurricular activities, and while spending time with friends.

Here are some things to put into place now until your teen feels strong and independent enough to end the relationship.

Go through each of these items and have your teen brainstorm what they could do in each scenario in order to stay safe.

Not every suggestion will be something your teen wants to incorporate into their safety plan and that is fine. Start with what feels the most relevant and pressing for their situation right now. You can always revisit the safety plan and add things as they are needed.

Identify Safe Spaces at Home, School, and Work

These are areas your teen would try to make their way to if they felt threatened or in danger. Ideally, these areas should have other people there, very few things that could be used as weapons, and a way out.

Encourage Your Teen to Talk to Trusted Friends

As hard as it may be for your teen to reveal abuse, telling at least one friend what is happening adds an added layer of security. This person may be able to recognize when something seems off and alert you or others.

Consider Alerting the Principal and Your Teen's Boss

Letting these authority figures know what your teen is experiencing adds a layer of protection. Encourage your teen to share with them what is happening and how they are trying to stay safe. At school, the principal can keep an eye on your teen and at work, their boss can be alert if their dating partner shows up unannounced.

Encourage Your Teen to Walk With a Friend

When people are around, the abusive person is less likely to do anything to harm your teen. As a result, if they can try to avoid being alone in the halls at school, on their way to work, or wherever else they go, this will increase their safety.

Keep an Extra Set of Keys In a Safe Place

Sometimes an abusive partner will take the keys of their love interest to keep them from leaving. For this reason, your teen should always have an extra set of keys in a safe place. Remind them it's best they don't share that location with anyone (especially their partner).

Brainstorm Ways of Ending the Relationship

When leaving an abusive relationship, your teen is at an increased risk of getting injured. For this reason, you both need to give careful consideration to how this will be accomplished safely and without incident. If a partner is abusive, this is an example of a time when breaking up by text, over the phone, or in a public place is absolutely acceptable.

Help Your Teen Recognize the Warning Signs

To try to keep your teen from getting hurt, talk to your teen about recognizing when their partner is starting to escalate toward being abusive. By making a quick exit, they can stay safer.

Stress That Your Teen Meets Their Partner In Public Places

When going out on dates, encourage your teen to meet their dating partner in public places like restaurants, coffee shops, and sporting events.

Meeting someone in public is a good dating practice in general, but even more important if your teen is dating someone who is unsafe.

Encourage Your Teen to Keep You or a Friend Informed

Although your teen should already be doing this as part of safe dating practices, keeping you informed where they will be is extremely important now. Additionally, your teen can use location sharing or GPS-equipped apps on their phone to help you find them even when they can't text you.

Stress That Your Teen Avoids Wearing Things Around Their Neck

Scarves, long necklaces, and lanyards can become a weapon in the hands of an abusive person. For this reason, your teen should avoid wearing anything around their neck that can be used to restrain them or strangle them.

Discuss Who Your Teen Calls In an Emergency

Aside from calling 911 in an emergency, your teen needs to keep a list of people they can call if they need to be picked up or if they are in danger. In addition to you, these people can be any trusted adult or friend that will come to them no matter when they call or where they call from.

Establish a Code Word to Use In Emergencies

It helps your teen to have a code word they can use in a phone call or through a text when they are in danger or need help. Brainstorm with your teen what word they can use and when it might be useful to use it.

Surround Yourself With Supportive People

Experiencing abuse is heartbreaking, dangerous, and confusing. Consequently, your teen needs supportive friends and adults in their life that counterbalances the effects of abuse and encourages them to end the relationship. Help your teen identify those people in their life.

Set Strong Passwords on Devices

Digital dating abuse is a very real threat for teens. As a result, your teen needs to make sure that they keep their social media sites and devices secure with strong privacy settings and pass codes.

Revising the Plan After the Relationship Ends

The most dangerous time for a teen in an abusive relationship is when they break up. At this point, the person who was abusing them is likely to feel overwhelmed with emotions including everything from anger and rage to fear and abandonment.

They will likely feel like they have lost control over the person and will do what they can to try to win them back. They may try all types of tactics to get what they want including crying and begging as well as stalking, intimidating, and threatening.

Prepare your teen for all of these possibilities and remind them that people do not change overnight. It can be very tempting to go back to the person, especially if they have convinced your teen that they have changed. However, their partner promising them the abuse won't happen is simply not enough.

You also should consider talking to the police and possibly even an attorney about what safety measures can be put into place. You may be able to get an order of protection (sometimes called a restraining order), as an added layer of protection.

Even if your teen's former dating partner was never physically abusive, there is no guarantee that they won't try to hurt your teen in some way after the break-up.

  • Consider blocking the abusive person on social media.
  • Be careful about using social media after a break-up and avoid posts that reveal their current location.
  • Let the principal and boss know about the break-up and the risks for more abuse.
  • Request a locker change if it's near the abusive person.
  • Adjust class schedules if possible, especially if they have a class together.
  • Talk about the importance of eating lunch and spending free periods around lots of other people.
  • Encourage your teen to ask friends and teammates to watch their back.
  • Change your teen's phone number or at least block the abusive person's number.
  • Request a new work schedule.
  • Discuss various routes your teen can take to school, work, and home so their movements are not easily tracked.
  • Know who your teen can call or where to go in an emergency at school, work, or when out.
  • Shop at different stores or malls, so the abusive person has trouble finding your teen.
  • Find new places to hang out with friends rather than predictable hang-out spots.
  • Stress that your teen avoids going out alone or spending time in isolated places.
  • Encourage your teen to continue to keep parents and friends informed of their whereabouts.
  • Investigate your legal options including protection orders and when charges can be filed.

A Word From Verywell

If your teen is involved in an abusive relationship, it can leave you feeling frustrated, confused, worried, and even scared. While it's important to ensure your teen's safety—including involving the police when necessary—you also need to empower your teen to make their own decisions. If you just take over and fix the situation, you are feeding into their sense of powerlessness and their lack of control.

Instead, look for ways to support and encourage your teen. Help them see that this relationship is unhealthy and that they deserve to be treated with respect. You also should consider getting a professional counselor or mental health expert involved who has experience working with teen dating violence victims. A counselor can help your teen make sense of their dating relationship as well as help them learn to build their self-esteem and heal from the pain the relationship has already caused.

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  1. Break the Cycle. Safety planning with teens.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.