Teen Relationship Problems: When Should Parents Intervene?
Teen romantic relationships are fraught with challenges. It can be difficult as a parent to figure out the right way to guide our kids.
“Parents need to strike a balance between honoring teens’ autonomy and offering guidance,” says marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney. Whitney, who writes Keep the Talk Going, a blog about parenting, relationships, and sexuality, says that teens are more likely to rebel if they feel too controlled.
So when should parents intervene in their teenage children’s relationships? Here are the situations that will benefit from your engagement:
You suspect abuse
One in three adolescents are abused physically, emotional, verbally, or sexually by a dating partner. Signs of abuse can include:
Becoming isolated from other friends
Giving up on activities that were once important
Showing signs of depression
Seeming fearful of their partner
Apologizing for the partner’s behavior
“Parents who suspect their teenager may be in an abusive relationship have to find the delicate balance between under-reacting and over-reacting,” says Lisa Nitsch, Director of Education and Training at House of Ruth Maryland. “We all want to protect our children, but unless the child’s mental or physical safety are in immediate danger, it is ideal to let them set the pace for how to respond.”
That said, it is still important to discuss your concerns with your teen. “If there is an immediate threat,” says Whitney, “you might have to take action.”
You can consult the Domestic Violence Hotline or the House of Ruth for guidance in developing a safety plan.
You’re worried about negative influences
If you see that your teen’s romantic partner is engaging in dangerous behavior, like using drugs, drinking excessively, or getting into fights, you will likely want to intervene.
“That intervention can be a conversation, an earlier curfew, or more supervision of their time together,” says Whitney.
Your child is younger or less mature for their age
“The younger and less experienced the adolescent, the more parental guidance is needed,” says Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist with Invictus Psychological Services.
Talley encourages parents to remain more involved in their child’s relationship when the child is younger and less emotionally mature.
Being involved may mean having conversations with your teen about their relationship. You could ask, for instance, what your child likes or doesn’t like about their partner and even share some of your experiences with dating.
Your teen’s romantic partner is older
“If the age difference is much more than a couple of years, the developmental difference gives the older teen too much power,” says Whitney.
Whitney also acknowledges that you need to tread lightly because being too rigid or preventing your teen from spending time with this person will likely lead to a negative outcome. She suggests having an open and honest conversation with your teen about the fact that you need to supervise because younger teens can be pressured by older boyfriends or girlfriends to do things they aren’t comfortable with.
Your teen’s relationship seems out of balance in another way
While age disparities can cause imbalances of power, there can also be imbalances because of personality types.
“It takes teens some time to figure out how, within a romantic relationship, they can appropriately negotiate control over activities,” says Talley. He recommends parents pay attention to how the young couple makes decisions and provide guidance when necessary.
Your teen is changing long-term plans
“I would consider intervening if teens are giving up on their dreams because of someone they are dating,” says David Bennett, a certified counselor, former high school teacher, and co-founder of the blog The Popular Teen. “I’ve seen many examples of teens ready to head off to college to study something they love who ended up changing plans for their boyfriend or girlfriend.”
If that’s the case with your teen, have a conversation about the long-term consequences of changing their plans.
You’re concerned about your teen’s sexual activity
It’s helpful to have open conversations about sex and your values and expectations even when your child isn’t dating anyone.
“Talk to them about how every activity, from handholding on, should happen only when it’s truly wanted by both people,” says Whitney.
If you suspect that your teen is feeling pressured by a romantic partner, it’s important to intervene. “Any partner who pressures your child do more than they want to is not treating them with respect,” says Whitney.
Your teen and his/her romantic partner are arguing
If your teen and their partner are arguing, Talley recommends waiting to intervene so both teens can learn how to handle a stressful interaction.
“If the argument continues to escalate and you can see that it is not productive but merely at the point where both teens are hurt, angry and venting,” Talley says, “it’s time to step in and stop the combat.”
If you do find the need to intervene in your teen’s relationship, Whitney encourages parents to avoid being impulsive and to handle the situation calmly.