If you suspect your adult child is in a harmful relationship, listening to them may be more effective than a dramatic rescue attempt.
Toxic relationships are inherently unequal: One partner dominates, and the other accommodates. If your son or daughter is in a toxic relationship, you may see the wonderful qualities of the child you raised (and their partner’s negative ones), but they may only see their need for their partner and your critiques.
According to this 2021 literature review and analysis, this is because toxic relationships can operate as addictions, robbing folks of their self-determination and self-esteem.
A toxic relationship that features control and emotional manipulation may veer into:
- financial abuse
- digital abuse
- verbal abuse
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
When you see your child hurting in a romantic relationship, it’s natural to react with:
But maintaining a rapport with your child and then helping them find a support network may be your most effective strategy to help your grown or near-grown kid.
Teasing and occasional situational outbursts occur in many relationships, particularly young ones. But in healthy relationships, each partner maintains boundaries, remaining connected and autonomous.
In toxic relationships, however, one partner feels so dependent on the other that they shrink themselves to keep the relationship. As a parent, you may notice the red flags and manipulations your child’s partner uses to keep them in “their place,” such as:
Signs your adult kid (or teen) is in a toxic relationship
- frequent criticism in private or public
- their partner “shoulds” all over them, e.g., constantly berates with “you should” and “you need to”
- often being stonewalled or gaslit
- being isolated or discouraged from spending time with you or others in your kids’ inner circle
- frequently being humiliated or on the receiving end of microaggressions
- often being the pair’s scapegoat for any and everything that doesn’t go the dominant partner’s way
- having little autonomy or decision-making ability in the relationship
When toxicity evolves to abuse
A toxic relationship may become abusive or violent. This
Kim Sisto Robinson, a writer, and high school educator, has been a passionate voice against domestic violence since her sister was killed by her estranged husband in 2010. She asks parents to recognize the following as possible signs of relationship abuse in their children of all ages:
- eating disorders
- isolation from friends and family
A 2015 study lists additional warning signs, such as:
- identity confusion
- mood or personality changes
- increase in sadness
- inappropriate emotional outbursts
- significant changes in typical socialization patterns
- isolation from family and friends
- truancy from school
- significant changes in sleeping and eating patterns
- loss of interest in favorite activities
- lowered self-image and self-worth
- a pattern of making excuses for or accepting blame for the abuse
If your child is a young adult or teenager, you may be tempted to dismiss signs of relationship toxicity as immaturity.
But verbal abuse and physical and sexual violence are fairly common among dating high school students, according to results from the
- slightly over 8% experienced physical violence
- slightly over 8% experienced sexual violence
- female students and LGBTQ students reported the highest rates of physical and sexual violence
The research found that teen and young adult couples experience high rates of psychological violence. In this age group, both partners are found to give and receive psychological abuse more than in other age groups (without recognizing their behaviors as such).
The following situations or conditions might make your child vulnerable to a toxic or even abusive relationship:
- substance use
- family or neighborhood history or normalization of domestic violence
- being in a social group affected by patriarchal, homophobic, or racist norms
A 2020 review of 31 studies found that personality traits, including avoidance and self-destructiveness, can isolate women in toxic and even violent relationships.
“We cannot make somebody see or do what they do not want to see or do,” says Sisto Robinson. “I took this one girl aside at school and told her about [my sister]. I also told her that she is amazing, smart, and doesn’t deserve [her boyfriend’s] abusive treatment.
“She listened. And she stayed with him.”
Not even parents can force a relationship’s end.” We can offer resources and a listening ear, however.”
“People are ashamed to talk about this,” says Sisto Robinson. “I wish I would’ve asked my sister more about her marriage, the verbal abuse, the symptoms.”
“I told one mother [of a student in the school where she works,] ‘Do you know what [your daughter’s boyfriend] is like? He is abusive, hits her, demeans her.”
“The mother did not know this … because she never asked.”
In the 2021 literature review and analysis cited above, researchers suggested while you may not be able to remove the toxic partner, helping provide alternate sources of self-esteem sometimes breaks their hold.
Can you encourage your child to find a job (if they’re financially dependent)? Or join an interest group (if they’ve lost touch with their passions?)
Keep inviting them to family activities
The same study suggests that the powerless partner in a toxic relationship may be better able to get perspective if they have contact with outside friends or family members.
It may be difficult to get your adult child involved in family activities, particularly if their partner’s discouraging time with you. But trying is essential. Even brief contacts here and there may end up making a long-term difference.
Know it can happen to sons as well as daughters
Women are more likely to be the victims of severe physical and sexual partnership abuse. But men can also be victims of toxic and emotionally and physically abusive relationships.
This can start at an early age. A 2021 study of 2,218 American middle and high school students shows that males are more likely to be victims of abusive texting and social media shaming from female romantic partners than females are from males.
It may be painful to watch your child stuck in a toxic relationship. Emotional symptoms may cause them to stay even when they glimpse their problems, including:
You may be able to help with circumstantial factors such as financial dependency or an unstable support system — but only when they’re ready.
When your child sees there is toxicity, it can be empowering for them to reach out for help. Here are some resources you can have at the ready:
Resources for abusive situations
- If your child is young, Loveisrespect.org, a national helpline for teen dating abuse, can help your teen brainstorm safe exit strategies.
- For your adult child, The national domestic violence hotline has a “get help” option that connects you to local hotlines in your area.
- National sexual assault hotline
- Inclusive therapists
Emotional factors and conditioning may challenge your adult child to see their relationship as toxic — even when you see it clearly.
You can’t force your adult child to quit their partner. You can support them by staying in their network, listening to them, and — when they’re ready — encouraging them to access outside help.