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When Your Adult Child Is in an Abusive Relationship

Know the signs — and be compassionate, offer a safe haven

When Your Adult Child Is In an Abusive Relationship


Identify the signs your son or daughter may be in an abusive college relationship.

College romance can have a dark side. While researching a book on campus party life, sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong found that some boyfriends of young women control them by checking their text messages and hiding their car keys. The women also reported that they'd endured taunting, yelling, shaming, stalking — even rape — before breaking up with their abusers.

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"We were surprised by how many young women had relationships that were characterized by some form of violence," says Armstrong, coauthor of Paying for the Party. "Not only physical abuse but emotional abuse, where the abuser takes away with the victim's freedom with controlling behavior."

Technology such as 24/7 text availability, location tracking and computer spyware has allowed abusers even more control.

Nearly 60 percent of millennial women have experienced some sort of abuse, from verbal degradation to strangulation, according to a Glamour/Harris national poll. Why don't they leave? "Love" was the No. 1 reason for staying in a relationship.

What can parents do if they suspect their child — and most often it's a daughter — is in an abusive relationship? Experts agree that in cases of physical abuse, parents should call the police.

But what about the more common emotional abuse, which can be hidden and happens gradually over time?

The telltale signs that someone may be in an emotionally abusive relationship include: isolation from parents, family and friends; making excuses for a partner's bad behavior; withdrawal from outside activities; and constant sadness and crying, says Jill Murray, a psychotherapist in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and author of numerous books on the subject.

Abusive relationships usually start with small insidious behaviors, Murray says. Over time, a daughter becomes isolated from her parents; the abuser may say, "Your parents just don't like me."

She adds: "If he emotionally devastates her and takes away all the people who care about her, then she becomes completely emotionally dependent on him and makes it almost impossible to leave."

The first step for parents who suspect abuse is to reach out and ask a child to talk about what's going on — while recognizing that she's not going to change until she's ready. "You can't make her leave," Murray says.

But parents can communicate that they are a safe place to land when she becomes ready to leave or even just talk through the situation.

A successful strategy Murray has used with patients is to get them to recognize what she calls her mantra: "Love is a behavior." Murray suggests asking your daughter how she thinks love is expressed through behavior. "You may not get an immediate reaction, but over time she may come to realize that being possessed and controlled is not her definition of love."

As frustrating as it is to be unable to force an end to an abusive relationship, parents can still control their own behaviors, says Danielle B. Grossman, a marriage and family therapist in Truckee, Calif. Grossman outlines some steps that parents can take:

  • Show compassion. "This will allow you to be there in healthy ways for your child and feel deeply connected without getting involved. It means that you acknowledge that your child is suffering."
  • Set boundaries. "Tell your child, 'I love you, and I am here for you, but I can't be part of the chaos that is going on anymore. I am not willing to continue to support you while you are living with someone who is abusing you.' The point isn't to try to control your child's behavior but to model a healthy way of interacting between a responsible parent and child."
  • Take care of yourself. "Is your health suffering because your time and energy are going nowhere? Realize that you have limited control over the situation, and don't blame yourself. You need to take care of yourself before you can help your child."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at

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