Often people who are in unhealthy or abusive relationships are very good at hiding it. As parents or family members, you may be some of the people who are most equipped to tell when something in the relationship or about your student seems off. Here are some warning signs to look out for:
- Did they get into a serious relationship quickly? Relationships that are unhealthy or abusive often move at a very fast pace.
- Does the relationship seem volatile? In abusive relationships, there can be a lot of high highs or low lows.
- Have you noticed your student becoming isolated? They may be calling less, visiting less, seeing less of their family and friends or even missing work or class.
- Have you noticed a change in behavior in your student? For example, they stop attending things they used to, they get upset more easily than before, their grades are dropping.
- Are their friends disapproving or concerned?
- Is your student overly concerned about responding quickly to their partner’s texts? It might seem like your student is “walking on eggshells.” Perhaps their partner is expecting immediate responses to texts or wants to know where they are at all times.
- Is their partner possessive and jealous? Their partner might be saying things like, “I don’t want you hanging out with that group of people.” “I love you and I’m just protecting you.” You might hear your student using that language in their partner’s defense, “They just really love me.”
- Does their partner seem controlling? Perhaps they are telling your student what to wear, who they can see and spend time with, or where they can go.
- Have you noticed a change in your student’s confidence? Perhaps their partner makes rude comments about them (even in your presence), teases them, or minimizes their achievements. Your student might be questioning their own decisions or appear less self confident than you’ve seen them in the past.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be seeing warning signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Trust yourself, talk to your student, and encourage them to get help. Keep reading for information about how to talk to your student about what you are noticing.
Talking to Your Student who is in an Abusive Relationship
If your student is in an abusive relationship, it can be painful, confusing, scary and frustrating. It’s normal that they may not initially recognize a relationship as abusive or even if they do, may not want to leave. We understand that this can be particularly challenging for loved ones to see. If their partner has caused them to become isolated from family and friends, you may be feeling additionally hurt that your student is being distant. Likely, this process will take time, but know that your student really needs you right now. Here are some ways that you can be supportive:
Express concern. Parents or family members can often feel like it’s not their place to intervene in their students’s dating life. In a focus group by The One Love Foundation survivors of relationship abuse overwhelmingly expressed how important their parents were and could have been when they were experiencing abuse. You might try saying, “I’m concerned for your safety” or “You don’t deserve to be treated like this.”
Focus on behaviors you notice. Often people in abusive relationships do not identify as victims and do not describe their relationships as abusive. Rather than say “your relationship is abusive” which may make your student defensive, express concern and call out behaviors you’ve noticed. “I’m worried about you. I’ve noticed that you’re crying a lot lately.”
Educate yourself about domestic violence. Our Learn: Domestic Violence page offers some resources and education about types of abuse, prevalence, and why victims often stay. Our Get Help: Domestic Violence page offers information on safety and options for reporting, obtaining no-contact orders or restraining orders, academic remedies etc.
Continue to reach out especially if they are becoming isolated. It can be painful if it feels like your loved one is pulling away from you. Perhaps they have declined a number of your invitations to meet up or connect. However, it’s really important that you continue to reach out to them so that if/when they are ready to leave the relationship, they know they can come to you.
Respect their power and choice. Build your student up. If your student is in an abusive relationship then their partner is exerting power and control over them. Empowering your student to make decisions rather than making decisions for them can help to build back confidence. Affirm their strengths and remind them that you care. Avoid blaming or belittling comments toward your student about them or their relationship. Abusive partners usually put down their victims regularly, so your loved one’s self-esteem may already be low.
Remember that you cannot “rescue” them. Telling your student that you don’t like their partner or telling them to leave the relationship will likely not change their mind. In fact, it may only cause them to become angry or isolated from you. Remember that this is a decision they need to come to on their own.
Try not to judge. Even if you don’t understand or agree with their decisions, try not to judge them. On average, it takes a victim leaving seven times before they permanently leave an abusive relationship. There are many reasons for this. Judging your student for being in the relationship or going back to the relationship may make them feel worse and also, less likely to come to you when they need help and/or are ready to leave.
If/when they want to talk about the abuse, listen and reassure them. “It’s not your fault.” “You are not alone.” “I’m here for you.” “I believe you.” “I’m on your side.” Remember that it may be difficult for them to talk about it. In a focus group by The One Love Foundation, survivors described being worried about disappointing their parents and feeling the need to protect them from the abuse.
Offer to connect them to resources when they are ready. The Sexual Violence Resource Center on campus can be a starting point. Check out our Resources page for more information about on and off campus options. You can also always offer to contact resources with them. The National Domestic Hotline can be accessed 24/7 at 800-799-7233 and LoveisRespect.org offers trained peer advocates via chat, text, or phone for education and support.
Help them develop a safety plan. A safety plan is a plan to help them reduce their risk of harm. Safety plans are useful whether your student is choosing to stay, preparing to leave the relationship, or has already left. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is right when someone is about to leave. It’s especially important to plan for that. For example, depending on the situation you might want to help them think through a safe place to stay. This safety plan from LoveisRespect.org is specifically for college students. The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s safety plan has specific ideas for folks living with an abusive partner, for people who have kids or pets, who are pregnant, or who are experiencing mostly emotional abuse. It may be helpful for your student to work with a professional to put this plan together.
If your student ends the relationship, continue to support them. While you may feel relief, your student may feel sad and lonely once the relationship is over especially if they have become isolated from family and friends. Having lots of support during this time may help deter them from going back to the relationship.
If your student’s partner is stalking them, be cognizant of what you put online. Don’t post information about your student on social networking sites. Be aware of sharing your location especially if you are with your student. Learn more about stalking and what to do on our Learn: Stalking page.
Take care of yourself. It’s common for friends and family to need support too. In fact, sometimes first responders or close family and friends may experience “secondary trauma.” If you seek support from family and friends, be mindful of your student’s privacy.