It’s an interesting experience when your teenager tells you that they have their first partner. In my case, my 15-year-old daughter started dating a boy a year ahead of her at school. They met during the school play, and he asked her to prom. My anxious daughter went, but didn’t like it at all. However, they started dating later that month.
He seemed nice, was very polite and appeared to treat our daughter well. She decided about a month in that she no longer wanted to be in a relationship. She tried to break up with him… however he threatened suicide. As a parent, how do you deal with this? What should your steps be to free your child from a relationship that has become manipulative?
Moving forward, she sought help from the school counsellor who was able to speak to the boy, and they broke up. It was very difficult for our daughter to hurt another person, but she ultimately realized that his suicide threats were more about him than they were about her.
They had kept in touch, and, unbeknownst to us, he was relentlessly pursuing her through social media. According to her, he had been seeing his psychologist more regularly, and had increased his medication, and was therefore stable emotionally. Reluctantly, and with misgivings we agreed she could see him again.
We began to notice our daughter was changing. We wondered if these changes could be attributed to typical teenage behaviour, increased pressure at school or sports commitments? She exhibited increased anxiety, some self-destructive behaviour, and a few anxiety attacks. We had known she had anxiety from an early age, and had worked with her to provide tools to help her deal with it. These no longer seemed to be working. We decided to seek help from a professional.
Meanwhile, we began inviting the boy over for dinner, including him in family dinners, at our daughter’s request. All seemed well. He seemed to treat our daughter well, and was still polite and respectful. They spent a lot of time inside, watching movies. He was able to go out with his friends at a moment’s notice, but she was discouraged from seeing her friends because he didn’t like them.
Fast forward 2 years. They are still together, and our daughter is away at university (in a different country and time zone as the boy). As with any first-year student away from home, it can be a challenge and a bit lonely. A challenging situation made worse by a pandemic, and a diagnosis of COVID in her first month away. Unbeknownst to us, he had been emotionally manipulating her and keeping her up all hours to Facetime. He was also gaslighting her — telling her that she was the problem and she was emotionally abusive because she refused to participate in “online things”. She wasn’t sleeping much, but sadly not for the typical first year reasons! Additionally, he was interrupting her time with her new flatmates deliberately. By the time I went to see her at Christmas, she was anxious, thin and pale (she couldn’t come home because of the pandemic and a quarantine required in both countries).
Two days into our Christmas break, I awoke to an early morning knock on my door —- she had stayed up all night breaking up with the boy. He was sobbing and threatening suicide. She stood firm and that was the end, finally.
Then it all came spilling out —- she hadn’t wanted to worry us with her problems. The ultimate straw that made her finally break with him: he didn’t understand why she would want to take our opinion about something above his. And how we were somehow less important than he was. He was trying to isolate her from both her family, and her new family at University. It’s a stereotypical phrase, but the fog cleared from her eyes, and she could suddenly see all of the manipulation for what it was. Her self-esteem was at rock bottom. We spent most of our time together working through the relationship for what it was, and how she can move on. We ended up naming him “the Leech” because he was draining her of her self-esteem, her friends, her time and her fun!
Her second term at University has been completely different from her first term! She’s spending much more time with her flatmates; she’s building a life! She’s happy, and light in her soul. While she’s still anxious, there haven’t been any anxiety attacks since the break-up.
Things to look for in an emotionally manipulative teenage relationship: These are the things we learned that happened in the relationship with our daughter. This is not a definitive list, but
- Threatening self-destructive behaviour “if you break up with me, I’ll …”
- Character assassination - basically saying you’re not a good person
- Dismissiveness -not listening to what you have to say about the relationship — always trying to make their experience worse than yours, and it’s all your fault
- Blaming you for their problems
- Trivializing your emotions and concerns
- Twisting all disagreements into making them your fault
- Isolating you from parents/friends “why am I not the most important person in your life”
- Distracting from work/school work with their problems. Your obligations are not as important or as valuable theirs are.
- Monitoring your whereabouts — “why aren’t you texting me back right away” while knowing full well where you are.
- Accusing you of abuse
- Disputing your feelings
Things we did to keep close ties, and be the first place she would turn to when she needed help:
- We kept strict rules about when she could go to his house, and how long he could stay when he was here.
- We dropped hints about what we were seeing —akin to breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel story— just little things here and there. We didn’t be-labour any points.
- No nagging!
- When he first threatened suicide, our response was “you are our priority” and that she wasn’t responsible for his mental health. We were more than willing to see the school, or his parents to make them aware, but left it in her hands WITH a deadline for completion
- We put our foot down on things that crossed our lines — he wanted her to stay over at his parent’s house all the time. That was a no go in our book.
- We included him in our dinners and family events — then we couldn’t be accused of not knowing him!