At least he doesn’t hit me.
That phrase, uttered by millions of women, has perpetuated an incomplete definition of the word “abusive.” And it’s not the only one. There are many skewed ideas about what constitutes an abusive relationship.
Not all abuse is physical. Not all abuse victims are women. Not all abusive relationships are romantic. Words and nonviolent actions can be just as damaging as slaps and punches — sometimes even more so.
We want our kids to make smart choices when it comes to relationships, but the unfortunate reality is that even healthy, smart kids can unwittingly form friendships or romantic interests with abusive people. Physical abuse is pretty straightforward; emotional abuse can be harder to spot. The sooner we teach kids to recognize the early warning signs that a potential friend or romantic partner might be an unhealthy choice, the better.
Here are some questions kids can ask themselves to help them recognize less obvious signs of abusive behavior:
Does the person seem unreasonably jealous?
Kids are just learning how to navigate social relationships in general, so some jealousy among friends is normal. But as kids get older, that kind of immature jealous reaction to friends hanging out with other people should wane. Kids — and especially teens who are approaching the dating stage — should know that jealousy is not a healthy or flattering quality in a friend or potential love interest.
Does the person try to isolate you from others?
It’s normal and healthy to have relationships with many people. If a friend or potential partner is trying to cut you off from others and keep you all to themselves, that’s a red flag. If you find yourself losing friends or feeling guilty for spending time with other people, it’s time to step back and reevaluate your relationship with that person.
Does the person make you feel bad about yourself?
You should never be in a relationship with a person who makes you feel down on yourself. Abusers can be master emotional manipulators. They may say or do cruel things, then say they’re only joking. It’s a classic pattern, making you feel bad and then making you feel guilty or stupid for feeling bad. Healthy relationships uplift you. Love doesn’t demean or ridicule.
Do they constantly call or text when you’re not together?
Puppy love can create a kind of “I can’t stand being apart for five minutes” feeling, but there’s a step beyond that which moves into obsession and control. If the person seems to be constantly checking in with you to see what you’re doing or where you are or whom you’re with, that’s an unhealthy sign. Nobody needs a controlling friend or partner.
Do they “punish” you for not giving them enough of your time or attention?
Abusers feel entitled to your time and attention and will make you pay in some way if they don’t get it. They may turn cold and make you feel guilty. They may threaten to end your relationship. They may threaten to spread rumors about you. They may threaten to hurt you. They may even threaten to hurt themselves if you leave. Threats are red flags — always.
Teaching our kids to treasure healthy relationships and steer clear of unhealthy ones is one of the most important life skills we can offer as parents. None of us want to imagine our kids being hurt by people who are supposed to care about them. If we teach our kids to be aware of warning signs, hopefully they won’t find themselves in a relationship they have to fight their way out of — physically or emotionally.