Psychotherapist and author, Cathy Press, shares the warning signs that could indicate your teen is in a toxic or hurtful relationship
When your teenager shares they are in a romantic relationship it’s natural to feel a mixture of emotions.
Depending on whether you have met their partner before you might share their happiness or bond with them over sharing your own memories of first love.
However happy you are, it’s absolutely normal to feel pangs of concern as this new life stage signifies your baby is growing up and is starting to be exposed to all the things as adults, we try to protect them from.
A new relationship is exciting no matter our age and it’s normal that some don’t make it past the first few weeks or months.
If things aren’t working out in your teens relationship it can be extremely painful to watch them struggle with their emotions but if you think their relationship has turned sour and something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s important to follow your instinct.
You know your child better than anyone and if you notice a change in behaviour or a series of red flags it’s time to check in on them to make sure they have not found themselves dating someone who doesn’t have good intentions.
We often think of a controlling partner as an adult or someone older, but their behaviour can start young and take on many guises that they might use at the same time to coerce your teen into doing what they want.
These include: the Charmer, who tries to convince their other half that they are the perfect, loving partner; the Bully, who intimidates and hurts; the Mindmixer, who plays mind games; the Taker, whose ultimate aim is to be sexual without forming a healthy relationship; and the Keeper, who tries to isolate your teenager so they can fully control them.
Look out for the following, which may indicate something is not quite right with your teen’s relationship.
1.Your teenager has been receiving many gifts from their partner
The Charmer might spoil your teen by buying them gifts — maybe clothes or technology such as a new phone. This may be under the guise of them ‘only deserving the best’ — but where the Charmer is concerned, this is not necessarily the case as they will have an ulterior motive.
When you are made to feel special by someone, you are more likely to view them positively and develop warm feelings towards them. You have to ask yourself and your teen: if the gift to genuinely treat them or was it given to make them feel indebted and to perhaps be used later as leverage? If there is an expectation that they ‘owe’ them as a result of the gift, then they are indeed a Charmer.
2. Poor sleep and increasingly anxiety
In the company of the Bully, who may have hurt your teen, they will likely feel frightened and even sick with fear about what will happen next. They may not get any rest or be able to sleep because the level of fear, nervous tension and anxiety they experience means they are constantly braced ready for action, in the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.
The ‘fight or flight’ response enables you to react quickly and appropriately to a stressful or life-threatening danger so that you can survive it. After experiencing a frightening or traumatic incident (or incidents) at the hands of the Bully, they can begin to develop an exaggerated stress response, which can have a damaging impact on one’s physical and mental health. As a consequence, they can begin to feel less and less like themselves and their stress response can anticipate danger even when it isn’t there. Triggers include hearing a loud bang, someone shouting at you, hearing others argue or tense atmospheres.
3. They start to dress or act differently to their usual self
The Mindmixer focuses their abuse on the personal, making comments about the way your teenager looks, thinks and behaves — for example, “you could make a bit more effort” or “you’d look really hot if you wore these clothes rather than the ones you usually wear”.
This may lead them to becoming more self-conscious and begin to change their appearance or behaviours, possibly including dieting, changing their fashion or hairstyle, or exercising more (and obsessively so). When you start changing things about yourself in order to satisfy your partner, you are being coerced by the Mindmixer.
4. Your teen has love bites on their neck
While love bites can be a consensual sexual act, when your teen is being coerced by the Taker they are less romantic. The Taker wants to mark and own your teen sexually, and love-bites can be an example of ways that the Taker can demonstrate that they ‘belong’ to them. Remember these are actual physical wounds and bruises which can hurt. The Taker might also be very sexual towards your teen in public, groping them or grabbing their breasts or genitals. If you note they look uncomfortable with their partner touching them, it may well be that they are in a relationship with the Taker. These bruises and physical acts may escalate to sexual assault, for which you can find support with recovering from and/or reporting.
5. They are distant
The Keeper may turn your teen against you. They may text them constantly while they are at home, so they are preoccupied rather than being with their family. You might worry about this and question them or ask them to leave their phone outside of their bedroom at night. However, because their partner is intent on controlling what they do, they might try and persuade them you are being unreasonable and don’t care about them. This can be enough to drive a wedge between you both. This could escalate to the Keeper asking your teen to live with them and their family. While, for your teenager, this could seem like a good way of resolving the situation at home, it is a cleverly constructed situation for the Keeper to be more in control.
Cathy Press has been working as working as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor for over 25 years, specialising in domestic and sexual violence and abuse related issues with children, young people and adults. Her new book When Love Bites: A young person’s guide to escaping harmful, toxic and hurtful relationships is out now, priced at £14.99.