Teens (and people of all ages) often think of abuse as only physical violence. But that’s far from the truth. Emotional abuse is real abuse, and as a social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center I see it play out in teen relationships every day.
It can be easy for adults to dismiss teen relationships as dramatic or not “real,” but the reality is that one in three young people under age 18 has experienced dating abuse. Young people who are part of a marginalized community, such as having a disability, living in a low-income household, or being of color, LGBTQ+ or undocumented, are at even higher risk of being abused.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, here are the four most common abusive behaviors I see in teen relationships.
1. Extreme Jealousy
By far the most common abusive characteristic I see in teen relationships is extreme jealousy. Instead of viewing jealousy as a red flag, many young folks see it as a sign that their partner loves and cares about them. They equate this lack of trust with love and affection, and if their partner DOESN’T act jealous, they see it as a sign that their partner doesn’t care about them.
Jealousy is often most obvious with phones: wanting their partner’s passwords, checking their partner’s phone, getting upset when specific people message their partner or monitoring their partner’s social media activity.
Of course, everyone feels jealous or insecure sometimes. Jealousy isn’t inherently abusive. But extreme jealousy, when it’s used to exert power and control in the relationship, becomes abusive.
Abusive partners often try to isolate their partner by harming their partner’s relationships with friends, family and others who would be supportive of them. This means they might:
- Expect and demand all their partner’s free time.
- Talk bad about friends.
- Lie about their partner’s friends to get their partner to not trust them.
- Minimize the importance of relationships with friends and family.
- Verbally and emotionally abuse their partner to make them feel bad about themselves and think that no one else cares about them.
- Threaten to spread rumors or tell secrets.
- In queer couples, threaten to out them as LGBTQ+ to friends or family.
3. Sexual coercion and assault
Sexual coercion is so common. More than physical force (though that definitely happens, and too often), I see abusers coerce their partners into sex they don’t want and aren’t comfortable with. This could mean threatening them, making them feel bad about saying no, asking repeatedly until they say yes, or pressuring them in other ways. It’s not always coercing them into sex, but could also be sex without protection or at a time or in a place they don’t want to.
With young people, the newness of sex often makes it easier for abusers to coerce their partners, who aren’t always comfortable enforcing their boundaries, saying no or asking for what they want. Teens also feel like they can’t talk about sex with others, especially adults who they might otherwise turn to for advice or support. (This is one reason it’s so important for us to help teens feel comfortable talking about sex, and provide comprehensive, inclusive sex education).
It’s not uncommon for abusers to threaten to share nude or sexual photos of their partners. This can be an incredibly disturbing and frightening experience. It’s important to know that the photos don’t actually need to be shared in order for it to be abuse. The threat itself, made with the intent to exert power and control over their partner, is what makes it abuse. Of course, abusers also make other threats—for example, to hurt their partner or their property or pet, or even to hurt themselves.
Am I in an abusive relationship?
Abuse is about power and control. If you’re worried your relationship is abusive, ask yourself:
- Do I have power in the relationship, or does only my partner?
- Do I feel unsafe physically, emotionally or sexually when I’m with my partner?
- Have I been spending significantly less time with my friends or family, or lost friendships, since the relationship began?
- Do I feel guilty when I don’t spend all of my time with my partner?
- Do I feel like I have to keep secrets about my relationship? Do I feel like I can’t tell the truth about it?
What to Do
If you are in an abusive relationship or think you might be, remember that you are not alone. You can call the Love is Respect hotline at 1-866-331-9474 or text loveis to 22522 to talk to a trained peer advocate. You do not need to be in a crisis to call a hotline. You can also learn more about healthy relationships and dating abuse on the Love is Respect website.
If you feel you can, tell SOMEONE, like a school counselor, parent, or teacher. If you feel like you can’t talk about what you’re going through, you can still work to keep yourself safe. Create a safety plan. You can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or, if you’re in NYC, speak to someone anonymously by calling NYC Well at 1-888-692-9355.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, you can call (212) 423-3000 to make a free, confidential appointment with a healthcare provider (including counselors) at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center—no immigration restrictions, no insurance needed.
Kaitlin Klipsch-Abudu, LMSW is a trauma therapist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, specializing in work with adolescents and children who have experienced sexual or family violence. Kaitlin has previously worked in court- and school-based settings, providing trauma-informed care and advocacy from an intersectional perspective.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education