Approximately 6 million children are abused every year. Abuse can range from verbal, physical, psychological, or sexual mistreatment in venues that range from home to work to school. Abuse can be inflicted by family members, so-called friends, teachers, bullies, and romantic partners. The most common form of teen abuse is dating violence. It is estimated that 1 in 3 teens are suffering or have suffered from unhealthy dating relationships. To learn more on this specific topic, please read our blog “Teen Dating Violence”. The abuse can be subtle, and teens may not even realize they are being abused. So, it’s important that parents help define abuse for teens, teach teens how to establish boundaries, and be vigilant to look for signs that something is wrong.
Signs of Abuse
Below we have listed possible signs that a teen is being abused. Unfortunately, most of these signs could also indicate a completely different problem, such as depression. The key is that if your teen is displaying any of the signs below, something is wrong. It absolutely may not be abuse, but regardless of what it is, if you see these signs, you need to follow up with your teen to find the root cause. It is a good idea to consult with a trusted professional, such as a health care worker. Possible signs include:
- severe mood swings or depression and withdrawal
- trouble sleeping
- loss of appetite on the one hand or food addiction on the other
- injuries that do not have reasonable explanations
- substance abuse
- running away
- suicide attempts or ideation
- secretive behavior
- physical marks
It may sound strange, but teens may have trouble recognizing that they are being abused. Obviously, some abuse is easy to identify, such as violent attacks. In some types of abuse, the victim can feel afraid (the abuser threatened to hurt them or someone they love if they tell), embarrassed (especially if the abuse is sexual), or guilty (the victim may believe they are at fault). This can cause the victim to become very secretive.
But much abuse is borderline, such as when a boss expects an employee to do personal errands for him or when a friend starts putting you down. It can be difficult for a young person, without a lot of world experience, to realize that they are being treated improperly. And if a teen has witnessed abuse in the past (perhaps their father was verbally abusive to their mother), then they might assume that is just the way things are or that the abuse is a normal way to treat someone.
Abuse is often a method of controlling another person. For example, a dating partner might demand more and more of their victim’s time as a way of limiting contact with other people. This type of abuse can grow insidiously and slowly take over the victim’s life. Because the encroachment is slow, the victim of this type of abuse may need a reminder from outside to recognize how outrageous the situation has become.
Therefore, it is important that parents help their teens define abuse. If you give your teen ideas of what constitutes abuse, they are more likely to recognize it when they see it.
Teaching Teens to Set Boundaries
To help your teen avoid falling victim to abuse, help them learn to set boundaries. Boundaries are limits you set on how others can treat you or behave around you. People treat you as you allow them to; however, you can actually teach others how to treat you based on how strong or weak your boundaries are. In their simplest form, boundaries are limits to what is acceptable or can be tolerated in a relationship. It can be hard to establish boundaries, especially for teens, because it requires you to tell someone that you don’t like what they are doing. But in the end, if your teen can establish boundaries, they will develop into a healthy adult who has self-respect and is very respectful of others.
Teach your teen that the first step in establishing boundaries is self-awareness. Your teen needs to identify where they need more space or personal power. Ask them to identify when they feel angry, frustrated, violated, resentful, or uncomfortable. In these cases, they have often had a boundary “crossed”. Remind your child that their personal needs or feelings are valid. It is not necessary for them to defend, debate or over-explain why they need someone to stop encroaching on their personal space. Encourage your teen to tell people immediately when they are doing something that violates one of their boundaries in a graceful and honest way. Your teen should know that they can be kind, but they must make a direct request to the other person to stop their behavior (and their request should be specific) because it is making them feel uncomfortable.
The hardest part to explain to a young person is that, even if they are direct and specific in their requests, the other person may still cross their boundaries. Advise your teen that if the person continues to push them on a topic, tell them the topic “isn’t up for discussion.” The more your child stands your ground, the less likely the other person will continue to try to push things in the future. No means no.
Abuse can seriously damage your teen’s psychological wellness. For example, teens who are abused are more likely to engage in risky or self-destructive behaviors. A recent study, appearing in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Current Biology, reports that children who are abused or exposed to family violence have changes in brain activity similar to those seen in combat veterans.
If you are unsure if your child is being abused, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. They have trained people who can help you figure out what is happening and how to get help. Teens can also call this resource if they feel they might be abused.