Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q:How can you tell if a relationship is abusive or not?


Mary Jo’s response What an important question! I did a podcast last Friday on teen intimate partner violence (IPV), which is another way to talk about abusive relationships. I’ll be happy to share some warning signs and facts.

First, if your question deals with your own relationship or the relationship of a friend, please seek help and support. Telling a trusted adult in your family is important. I know that can be challenging – it is often difficult to admit a problem to adults when you don’t want to worry or disappoint them. Your safety is your first priority. Tell someone, please. We can continue to talk privately. You matter.

Teen intimate partner violence is more common than many people think. Data shows that 1 in 3 U.S. adolescents are victims of emotional, physical, sexual or verbal abuse from a dating partner. You may know someone in such a relationship. Remember, relationship abuse is about power and control. Here are some warning signs:

1. Controlling partners: Does your partner tell you how to dress? Make you talk about decisions before you make them? Control those decisions? Tell you what to do? Limit your connections with friends or family? Show extreme jealousy? Take your money? Refuse to share? Tell you not to work (or force you to give up your paycheck)? Harass you at work or in school? Stalk you?

2. Power on social media: Does your partner demand your passwords? Read your texts and messages without permission? Blow up your phone with possessive texts? Chastise you if you don’t respond to texts immediately? Read your Snapchat or Instagram accounts without permission? Post about you without consent? Share private texts/pictures or videos? Pressure for intimate pictures or videos? Think of this frightening statistic: 1 in 3 teens in a relationship state that they’ve received 10 to 30 text messages from a partner in one hour!

3. Emotional abuse: Does your partner make you feel guilty? Refuse to admit wrongdoing? Lie or cheat then blame you? Isolate you? Put you down or mock your intelligence or worth? Make you feel less than? Do you feel as if nothing you say is right? Does your partner twist your words and play mind games, making you question yourself?

4. Sexual power: Does your partner refuse to use prevention? Young people in abusive relationships are at higher risk for risky sexual behavior. Being physically or sexually abused makes teen girls six times more likely to become pregnant and twice as likely to get an STI (sexually transmitted infection).

5. Physical abuse: Does your partner hit, kick or push you? Frighten you? Throw or break objects in front of you? Show extreme anger? Use or threaten with a weapon? Spit on you? Show animal cruelty in front of you? Try to strangle you?

A teen in an abusive relationship may:

  • Lose interest in friends
  • Change their appearance
  • Have failing grades
  • Become secretive
  • Appear depressed
  • Hide bruises
  • Minimize the partner’s role in the above.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) teens are at high risk. A 2013 study showed that 43 percent of LGBT youth reported physical dating violence compared to 29 percent of heterosexual youth. When emotional abuse was studied, 59 percent of LGBT youth versus 46 percent of heterosexual youth reported emotional abuse in a relationship.

Long-term ramifications of dating abuse and IPV are sobering. Check out for more statistics and resources.

  • 50 percent of young people who endured dating violence and rape attempt suicide, compared to 12.5 percent of non-abused females and 5.4 percent of non-abused males.
  • Only 33 percent of teens in violent relationships told anyone about the abuse.
  • IPV can lead to death. A recent study in JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) showed homicide risk was high for teens in abusive relationships. Of more than 2,000 adolescents killed between 2003 and 2016, nearly 7 percent (150 teens) were killed by their current or former intimate partners. Ninety percent of the victims was female.
  • Adult and teen education is needed.
  • While 82 percent of parents feel confident they would recognize the signs of dating abuse, a majority (58 percent) could not identify all the warning signs of abuse.

Locally, is the website for Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA. They provide education and support. Their Washington County number is 724-223-9190 and they list a 24-hour hotline at 800-791-4000. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.

No one need face IPV alone. Reach out and connect. A life may depend on it.

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