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As an ob-gyn, I get to talk with teens who are in their first serious relationships. And I also have patients who are parents of teenagers and wonder if their children’s relationships are healthy.

Protecting teens from an unhealthy or abusive partner starts with helping them learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Ideally, this
begins before your child is dating.

Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect and good communication. Abusive relationships can take many forms. Teens of any sexual orientation or gender identity can be abused or be abusers.

Most teens understand that physical violence is wrong. Slapping, hitting, shoving, or hair pulling are red flags. Sexual abuse includes any kind of unwanted touching. But there are also subtle forms of emotional abuse, such as

  • extreme jealousy or possessiveness

  • manipulative or controlling behavior, such as telling a partner who to be friends with or what to wear

  • disrespect, such as teasing, belittling, or insulting a partner

  • online bullying, harassment, or stalking

If your teen is going through any of this, you may notice changes in behavior or other signs something is wrong, including

  • unexplained injuries or bruises

  • drug or alcohol use

  • changes in sleeping or eating patterns

  • isolation from family or friends

  • loss of enjoyment in activities they once liked

  • making excuses for a partner’s behavior

If you’ve noticed these signs or have another reason to think your teen may be in an unhealthy relationship, here’s what you can do.

Prioritize their health and safety.

Contact police if you think your child is in immediate danger. Take your child to a pediatrician, ob-gyn, or other health care professional for treatment if you suspect physical or sexual abuse. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) also has a directory of sexual assault service providers. And you can always call 911.

Talk with them about their relationship.

Find a comfortable, private place and time to talk. You also can use TV shows, movies, music lyrics, or news stories as teachable moments to bring up aspects of healthy and unhealthy relationships.

I tell my adolescent patients that intimate relationships should always be healthy and mutually respectful. This includes always asking permission before any sexual contact. This also includes a conversation about using birth control, to prevent STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and unintended pregnancy. Condoms give the best protection against STIs. But it is best to use condoms and another method of birth control, such as an IUD (intrauterine device), to prevent pregnancy.

Remember: It’s important to talk about birth control and have a plan for preventing pregnancy and STIs well before someone becomes sexually active.

Tell them what you see and why you think it’s a problem.

Focus on unhealthy behaviors. Explain, for example, that possessiveness and jealousy are signs of a need to control, not signs of love and respect.

Explain that an abusive relationship is not their fault.

Teens may blame themselves or feel ashamed if there is abuse in their relationships. Everyone deserves a healthy, safe relationship.

Decide on a plan of action together.

If your teen decides to end an abusive relationship, have a safety plan in place. This could mean letting school authorities know what’s going on, having your child carry their phone at all times, and choosing a code word they can use with you if they feel like they’re in danger.

Give them resources.

Loveisrespect.org is a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It educates teens and parents about healthy dating and how to spot unhealthy and abusive patterns. Teens and concerned family or friends can connect 24/7 with trained peer advocates by calling the helpline at 866-331-9474, texting LOVEIS to 22522, or using their online chat services. Advocates can share local resources, help create a safety plan, or listen to concerns.

Published: October 2020

Last reviewed: October 2020

Copyright 2020 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Read copyright and permissions information.

This information is designed as an educational aid to patients and sets forth current information and opinions related to women’s health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care, nor does it comprise all proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for a treating clinician’s independent professional judgment. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.

About the Author
Holly W. Cummings, MD, MPH
Dr. Holly W. Cummings

Dr. Cummings is an obstetrician–gynecologist who serves as assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She is a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.