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October 17, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 140

Can I Talk My Teen Out of a Toxic Romance?

Episode 140

A mother writes in asking how to protect her teen from a controlling and degrading relationship. Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss the nature of unhealthy relationships and how and when adults should intervene. Reena asks how parents can recognize the early signs of a harmful connection. Lisa explains how thoughtful people can find themselves in bad relationships and why the stakes can be incredibly high for a teen’s well-being.

October 17, 2023 | 29 min

Transcript | Can I Talk My Teen Out of a Toxic Romance?

TRANSCRIPT | CAN I TALK MY TEEN OUT OF A TOXIC ROMANCE?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 140: Can I Talk My Teen Out of a Toxic Romance?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
Oh, teens. Why are relationships for teenagers so much more intense than at any other age?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, right. Well, there is that kind of amped up nature of adolescent emotions. I think there’s also the novelty piece. Right that I think, you know, people talk about like their first love, right or their first heartbreak. Maybe there’s something inoculating like, when you’ve had your heart broken, having a broken a second time maybe isn’t as bad, but I think there’s something about the newness. What do you think, Reena?

Reena Ninan
Yeah, no, I think when you’re experiencing it for the first time, I also imagine your hormones and everything amplified, as you often tell us, things can be intense. But we got this letter talking about a toxic romance, which is something I often think about with teens, but it’s really interesting. When we do this letter, it says Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, what do you do when your teen is in a bad relationship that they can’t seem to get away from? It wasn’t until her daughter broke up with her boyfriend about a year ago, that she told me about all the terrible things he was doing and saying to her, he was controlling what she wore, who she saw her friendships and more. And he told her she was worthless, that she’s disgusting and more, we had no idea this was going on. Since the breakup, she does go through periods of time where she wants to get back together with him start talking to him again. And even seeing him her dad and I and all her friends support her as much as we can by telling her she’s worth more she deserves better. He’s a bad guy, etc. She knows it’s all true. But for some reason, she keeps going back and it breaks my heart to see her doing this. The more I give her the mom speech about how much better she deserves, the more she clams up and stops talking to me about it. I’m afraid of pushing her away. But I’m also afraid about what this is doing to her self worth, about the bad associations she may be making of what love looks and feels like. Is there anything I can or should be doing? Or do I have to let her figure this one out on her own? Thank you. What incredible questions I could ask you from the onset. Like how concerned should this mom be?

Lisa Damour
Very. Very, right. I mean, this is yeah, you know, we’re talking a couple episodes ago about things that are on fire. This is really worrisome. So let’s start with what to be really worried about and what to do. Minimally obviously we have psychological abuse this is a psychologically abusive relationship. There’s controlling there’s degrading, you know, I mean, there’s there’s horrible stuff happening. The that is concerning in its own right. What is what gets me very anxious, and I don’t get anxious all that easily is the possible a physical danger. And here’s the thing, Rina, not every relationship that is psychologically abusive, goes on to be physically dangerous. I think every relationship that turns out to be physically dangerous, starts with psychological abuse.

Reena Ninan
So hold on a second, what is psychological abuse? Can you define it? Can you show us what it looks like?

Lisa Damour
There are some yes, there’s things that we see that are patterns in abusive relationships. And a lot of them are described here where there’s you know, controlling what she wears. I’m controlling sometimes who people talk to. gaslighting is a term teenagers use a lot, you know, like not being honest about one’s pardon things not messing with reality. And then there’s, you know, make you telling her she’s disgusting, telling her she’s no good. You know, so these are, you know, elements of a pattern of psychological abuse. And what we know is that in relationships that go on to be violent, which is for me, you know, the concern, I actually want us to address right out of the gate on this one. You see this as part of the pattern, right? That it starts with physical psychological abuse, and that can become violent. And so on this one, what I would actually want any parent who’s listening to do if you’re like, Whoa, this is all feeling like familiar or possible. Um, there are a couple of resources I want you to actually go check out and really spend some time with. So one is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, you can call it, you can get advice. You can say, here’s what we’re seeing, what do we need to do to make sure that my kid is safe? And you know, the reality is these things happen in patterns. And so you want to talk to experts. The other reality is, often when people leave the relationship, that’s when they’re the most at risk of violence. And so, you know, people really want to work with experts on this. The other resource I want people to have at their fingertips is a website called Join one love.org. And read it. Do you remember it actually, was more than 10 years ago, there was a young woman named Yardley Love who was a lacrosse player for UVA. Do you remember this?

Reena Ninan
I remember that story. I covered it.

Lisa Damour
Yeah. Okay, so she was murdered by her boyfriend, her ex boyfriend, who was another lacrosse player at UVA. And he’s in jail. But her family started an organization called one love to try to have this never happened to anybody else’s kid, again. And it’s a really excellent website with a ton of information about toxic relationships, about what to look for. And again, how to keep oneself physically safe, how to get out of these relationships in a way that is safe, how to watch out for these relationships. So we can get into the details of this young woman and the psychological aspects of what she’s going through and what her family is trying to help her with. But only having done what we you know what I wanted to do, which is like, safety first, safety first, safety first, right? I mean, this what I say all the time, and there’s incredible resources to help families keep their kids safe.

Reena Ninan
So help me understand. Why do you want why does this girl keep going back to him? Why do people do that?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, right. I mean, I’m sure the parent is as boggled as anyone, right? Like that. She’s sad, like all this terrible stuff was happening. So I think it’s always complicated. There’s never one pattern that’s the same for every single situation. But, you know, another way we could also ask, this is like, how do you even get into a relationship like this in the first place? Like, how does somebody even find themselves, and the fact of the matter is, Reena, it’s not always bad, that there can be elements, and especially sometimes at the start of these toxic relationships, where it comes out of the gate really fast that the person likes, like, I’m just going to invent this about this relationship. You know, maybe this guy was like, Oh, my God, you’re amazing. You’re the best person ever. You’re so fascinating. Let’s spend all of our time together. That kind of instant superfast closeness is also actually often a worrisome sign. But it feels good, right? It can feel good. So people find themselves getting in sometimes very, very deep to something that takes a turn. And so then you’re like, okay, but Well, if it takes a turn, why don’t they, you know, get out of the relationship at that turn a few different reasons, you know, one is, they might be scared for their safety, that’s actually a legit concern. And that’s why I want people to know about all the safety resources. Another reason is that often, there can be an undoing process, where the person who’s being abusive is like, Oh, my God, I’m so sorry, you didn’t deserve that you’re the greatest of the greatest. So there can be this very confusing and entrapping. You know, it’s bad, except for when it’s wonderful. And the person who’s being both abusive, and also, incredibly, you know, kind and lovely and fun and terrific, treats those as though they’re cancelling out and so then the person on the receiving end can take, I don’t know, maybe these two cancel out, that person’s acting like they cancel out. But the bottom line is smart people find themselves stuck in relationships that they don’t want to be in, and it happens all the time. And the most important thing is that we just honor the fact that this can happen to somebody and they should never be blamed for it.

Reena Ninan
So Lisa, want to ask you, you know, this question that they’re asking here, you know, is there anything that the parents can do to end this toxic relationship for good? And the mom is here, you know, I’m sick of giving the mom speech, I don’t know that it’s working? Should I just let it play out? Or should I intervene?

Lisa Damour
So don’t just let it play out, right? I think this is too scary. This is to potentially dangerous. But the thing that a parent can do in this situation, and you can do it in less concerning situations, but you want to try it here is rather than having this relationship become about a conflict between the parent and the daughter, right, where the parents like, this guy is no good. And the daughter is like what you don’t understand. The goal here is to surface the conflict within the girl herself. And here’s, here’s the deal, Reena. What the mom hears about is all the bad stuff, because that’s what the girl has shared. And I’ve had this happen in my practice, where I’m sitting with a client, and they’re telling me, you know, an older adolescent, and they’re telling me about, like, you know, all the bad stuff and a relationship and Reena, I gotta tell you, it is so hard in that moment clinically, not to be like, get out, break up, what are you doing? Like, this is ridiculous, right? It’s very hard not to do it. What I do instead is I say, Look, you are a smart person. You are telling us about all this stuff, that doesn’t work. You wouldn’t be in this relationship, if there weren’t things that were working for you or were appealing to you talk to me about those. And that can feel very counterintuitive. Like the last thing you want to do is yeah, like read arts. Exactly. But the aim and doing that is to be like what is keeping you in, help me understand what is keeping you in. So it can feel like you’re going backwards, but I promise you if you can get that information on the table, right? That actually he can be really sweet. Or he’s got nudes of me that he’s threatening to, you know, like, you need to know, what is getting this kid stuck in this. And that information will invariably be valuable, invariably be valuable, either because you find out like she’s been blackmailed, right, like, which, you know, again, Reena, you know, I’m not dramatic, you know, I’m not exactly and when that happens, it happens. And parents need to know that and they probably need to talk to the cops, if that’s going on, right. I mean, there’s a lot of resources that need to be brought on board. But if it’s not that if the girls like, Mom, you don’t get it, when He’s great. He’s so great. Like, you know, like he, you know, he’s, and she describes all sorts of stuff that like, it’s hard to be neutral about this guy where the parent could be like, I see it, then the next step is to say, look, clearly you are torn. There is a part of you that is really drawn to this guy and appreciates how decent he can be and wonderful. And there’s a part of you that’s told me all about how terrible he can be. And then you say I want to say two things. One is you deserve to be treated well all the time by your friends, and your lovers. And two, I am going to stick up for the part of you that knows that. How can I help stick up for the part of you that knows that? So that’s where I would try to push the conversation.

Reena Ninan
So what goes through the teens mind when you’re doing this almost counterintuitive thing of saying tell me everything that you like about this person? Instead of giving the mom speech like you’re crazy. This is so ridiculous, because that’s intuitively Do what you want to do is like walk away and start yelling at them for like what they’re doing. It’s crazy.

Lisa Damour
So I think, you know, as you posed it, like, what’s really clear to me is you have to ask like you really mean, like, you really believe there’s something there, right? Because if you’re like, tell me why even like this guy, the kid will be like, Yes, this is you’re still not getting it right. This is you’re still setting yourself as my combatant on this. So Reena, the way you voiced it, like really brought to light for me that if you’re going to do this, you have to be like, You are a smart girl. You know what love is supposed to feel like, you know, it’s not what you’re describing. To me. There’s something you’re I’m missing, can you help me fill in what I am missing? Explain to me more about what, why you keep going back to this guy. And so it has to be earnest, it has to be true, it has to be like, the teenager has to feel like, Oh, you’re really asking, like you, you are crediting me with having something legitimate, that is appealing. Otherwise, the kids not gonna not gonna feel like you really mean it.

Reena Ninan
Because I think one of these things, it’s very clear in this letter, the mom, that I think a lot of parents struggle with the teenagers, the mom here is worried about potentially pushing the daughter away. So how do we prevent that from happening in a situation that you say is one of these caught on like fire, fire fire situations that are very serious?

Lisa Damour
I think one element of doing that is to say we are aligning with a part of you that knows that you deserve to be treated well all the time. So like, we’re coming in close on that side of you. I think that you make it very clear, we adore you, we have your back all day long. We don’t want to push you away. I think you say that we don’t want to push you away. We will be here for you no matter what. But we also see you’re struggling with this. And and I also think you just be honest, like we’re scared for you. This is scary. You know, I think I think I’ll say that. I said it, and now I’m thinking about it. I I think a parent would really have to be judicious about that. Because if the kids like see you don’t get it, he’s never gonna hurt me. You guys are overreacting, then I probably wouldn’t say it. But I think I think um, you know, I would want a parent to use their judgment and their knowledge of their kid about whether or not they want to, you know, go there.

Reena Ninan
Because what if you really are worried about your child safety and security? Because it seems very legit to worry about?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, no, it this is genuinely like, I mean, this is like, I hate to say it kind of textbook for the groundwork for things that actually take a very dangerous, you know, physically dangerous turn, which isn’t to say it’s going to but you know, again, we’ve talked about this before, if you play worst case scenario, game, like this worst case scenario is, you know, potentially lethal, right? So we don’t mess with it. So, if the parent is worried, I would truly, I would have the parent get on the phone with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, I would have the parents call the local police and just be like, I need to get some guidance on this. Like, you don’t have to give the kid’s name, right. I mean, you don’t, you don’t have to get anything in motion. Is as scary as these scenarios are, and they are truly scary. The thing I do find reassuring is they are very patterned. They do occur in sort of systematic ways. And so the police have dealt with this, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has dealt with this. And by dealt with this, you know, certainly the National Domestic Violence Hotline can say, here’s another way you can approach her daughter, if you’re really worried about safety, you know, that they have really thought through all of the safety ramifications. On the safety topic, actually, another thing if the parents is like, why are you staying around like what’s what’s the deal, not altogether unusual for a teenager to say back because he said he will hurt himself. If I leave, right? That that often that thread of like, someone’s gonna get hurt, like, if you go, you know, you’re getting hurt, or I’m getting hurt, like that is not unusual. And so I want parents to be prepared for that possibility. If they find themselves in these conversations.

Reena Ninan
You know, in these toxic relationships, it’s obviously not just a teen thing there. We know, people who get into them in adult relationships. What makes people more susceptible to being in a toxic relationship? Do we know?

Lisa Damour
You know, it’s funny, I don’t think we really do see a pattern there. And I think it’s so easy when all the information comes in, and when you’re six months in and there’s been all this bad behavior, like just like the nicest thing I can call it, like, I mean, like truly abusive, psychologically abusive behavior. It’s so easy to be like, oh, you know, why would like that person should have, you know, gotten out of this months ago. But I think it is really hard for any of us. I mean, Rena like imagine Being certainly a teenager, but almost any age, if you met somebody, and they were like, You are amazing, you are the most interesting person I’ve ever met. I’m gonna wait outside of class and have a coffee for you. Because I know you like it. That that’s often the opening. You know, kind of scene here, right? Or the opening act is often this incredibly alluring pull you in. No one else understands you like I do. No one else sees how fantastic you are like I do. Like we know like, I’d love to think I could resist that. I’m not sure. Certainly as a teenager, I’m not sure that I could have I seriously doubt I could have. And even as an adult, I think it’d be like, well, thank goodness, somebody finally sees me for the wonder that sounds like delusional, right? But still…

Reena Ninan
No, of course. Yeah.

Lisa Damour
It’s really, really sticky, Reena. And then it often is followed by a pattern of cancelling out behavior. So then there’s mistreatment, and then there’s like, No, I’m so sorry. I take it all back. And there’s something else at work here. That’s, I’m always fascinated by this one. I’ve watched this in interactions. It’s like a contaminant or equality of a conviction. So if the person who’s doing the mistreating is like, it doesn’t matter that I was so bad to you yesterday, because I’m being so good to you today. And they believe it, they believe it to their core. It can actually people can get caught up in that be like, Oh, maybe it doesn’t matter, because you’re being so good to me. And so, you know, at a distance, we can be like, well, that’s that’s not right, you know, you don’t cancel out behavior doesn’t work like that. But if you’re up close, and you’re really intimate with a person who believes that you can start to believe it for a while, too. And so I think, again, the more time I spend on topics like this, I’m like, You know what, Rena, this can happen to anybody. Which is why we want to talk with teenagers about what healthy relationships look like, even coming out of the gate.

Reena Ninan
I guess you’ve the counterintuitive stuff that you mentioned in this podcast was fascinating about really talking to them about what really appeals and what what’s so great about this person and what they love, and doing it in an empathetic way. I guess, I see what you’re saying. But I’m still confused at how people end up in this. And what do you believe, could really make a difference in getting them out?

Lisa Damour
So unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a teenager who doesn’t know a teenager who’s in something like this.

Reena Ninan
What?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, hopefully not as abusive as this is, but somewhere on that scale. Like, unfortunately, I hear about teenagers and kind of controlling, sometimes demeaning interactions with a romantic partner. And it’s not always, you know, the guy mistreating the girl. I mean, this can happen in any configuration of a relationship. And so what I would encourage parents to do, having listened to this episode is say to their teenager, so I was listening to a really interesting episode, it was talking about people being controlling and degrading, and their partnerships. You know, have you heard of anything like this? And I promise you if you keep it at a distance, right, so you’re not asking your kid directly, you’re asking about other kids? I have a very strong sense of most kids have be like, oh, yeah, you know, like, Billy has been in something like that since ninth grade, like this girl, you know? And then start asking, start talking and be like, What do you know? How did he find themselves stuck in that, like, I mean, really unpack it. And then either with your team or on your own like, go look at join one love, though website, it talks about, like signs of a healthy relationship signs of an unhealthy relationship. So spend some time but get the opening first, by asking the team, if they know about this, because believe me, I hate to say it, they almost certainly will. And then use that as a conversation starter about like, what are the kinds of things that if you saw them in early in a relationship, you should be more worried than you thought you should be? And what do we want to see in relationships? And what do healthy relationships look like? Really, you know, roll up your sleeves and have that conversation.

Reena Ninan
I say this a lot on the episodes that we do, but you keep talking about how it’s so important to have a conversation before you really need to have the conversation. And why just putting it on the table. They’re still listening to you and it’ll resonate are settled in at some point.

Lisa Damour
It will, and especially if they can have a conversation about some other kid, right? I mean, because if you need to have that conversation, you’re having it about your kid so it is already so hot to the touch, right? I mean, this poor mom feels like she can hardly bring it up without potentially damaging her relationship with her daughter. Yeah, you are in such better shape. When you’re talking about that kid over there. And worries about that kid over there because your kid’s not in the hot seat, and kids don’t do well in the hot seat. like they really they want to talk about these things. They want to know what we want to know, the resources that I mentioned are fantastic. They’re actually very aimed at teens. You know, they’ve got an app, they’ve got all this stuff that’s very appropriate. But kids take this stuff seriously. And they get very concerned for their friends.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. Wow, that’s so interesting to hear. So as we wrap up here, Lisa, do you have any other advice for this mom who, gosh, this letter was so beautiful, she just raised so many points and so many concerns, and she doesn’t want to push her child away, which I think is just so remarkable. That even is honest about that. What, what would you say to her, if you had the chance, Dr?

Lisa Damour
I mean, I would just say you’re right to be concerned, you know, that you’re not overreacting here. And educate yourself a lot about these kinds of relationships about how they can take a very dangerous turn, use all the free resources that I’ve mentioned. The stakes here are very, very high Reena and so I want this family to have a ton of support as they navigate it.

Reena Ninan
Wow, a fascinating topic. I just and a topic, toxic romance, is it just you we all know, people into their adulthood who struggle from this and you wondering why why are they with them? Like, what is there? What’s going on there? So this was fascinating. So what do you have for us for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
You know, in situations like this, it’s really easy as a parent to honestly feel kind of mad at our kid. You know, like, why would you put yourself in this position, you know, like, you should know better we raised you different. And you know, is that’s what a parent’s feeling. That’s what a parent is feeling. And I want them to find a place where they can vent those feelings, not to their kid, their kid is in a jam, their kid is in a corner, getting mad at them is not going to help. The feeling of the parent is valid, but best not shared with the young person. Find a place to put it so that with your kid, you can say, look, you’re a smart kid, you found yourself in a very tricky spot, we are here to help. That’s all we want to do. We love you. Our job was to take care of you. We’re gonna figure out how to make that happen.

Reena Ninan
So as much as you might want to be angry, and it’s just not the right thing to do that this is a moment it’s so heated that you’ve just got to appeal to them in an empathetic way.

Lisa Damour
Yep, find another place for that anger. It will not help the situation with your kid.

Reena Ninan
Thank you, Lisa. I learned so much as I always do. And I want to let everyone know that the resources Lisa talks about the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and also join one love.org will be also in our show notes so you can get the details on them there as well. Next week, Lisa, speaking of emotions, we’re going to be talking about how do I stop writing my kids emotional rollercoaster. I’m looking forward to that one. I’ve got a lot of questions for you on that one.

Lisa Damour
It’ll be a fun one.

Reena Ninan
It will it absolutely. Well, I’ll see you next week?

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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