outreach: too much control?

Brenda* had made a lot of changes her junior year.  She had her first serious boyfriend; she stopped hanging out with her group of friends; she changed the way she dressed, and she quit the soccer team. At first, her parents were rolling with the changes, believing that this was typical adolescent behavior. But they became more concerned when Brenda withdrew from the family and appeared anxiously tied to her phone and her boyfriend.

“There was no talking to her about it either,” her mother said. “She became instantly upset and defensive if we mentioned either the phone or her boyfriend.”

That’s when they suggested Brenda might be more comfortable talking with a counselor who will listen and be non-judgmental in a way that she felt her parents never could be.

At first, Brenda reported no problems to her counselor, but they spent some time getting to know each other. During sessions Brenda would receive several text messages, and although she would apologize for the interruption, she replied immediately. She explained that she had to tell her boyfriend she was going to help her grandmother because he would never be OK with her talking to a counselor. Brenda said he texted often to see what she was doing, and if she did not reply right away, it started a fight.

Brenda and her counselor began discussing the relationship and the changes Brenda had experienced since becoming involved with her boyfriend. She acknowledged that she saw her friends less, had quit soccer and was spending less time with the family but said she preferred  being with her boyfriend.  She used to be “a girly girl,” spending lots of time putting on makeup and picking out clothes, Brenda said, laughing, but now she wears no makeup and mainly hoodies because her boyfriend likes it when she looks “natural.”

Brenda admitted that her parents and even her friends had said her boyfriend is abusive but stressed that he had never been physically aggressive or forced any intimate contact. The counselor had Brenda take a healthy relationships quiz and used this to open a conversation about different ways relationships can be abusive or controlling.

“The incidence of digital dating abuse is on rise, and it’s probably the one that teens know the least about” the counselor said. Digital dating abuse is the use of technology and social media to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner. This can come in many forms including constant texts, stealing passwords, monitoring ‘friends’ lists and checking up on pictures, texts and calls. Brenda began to realize ways in which her boyfriend was controlling, but she was still not ready TO break up with him.

Even when relationships are unhealthy, it can be hard to end them. Brenda truly felt in love with her boyfriend, and she interpreted his controlling behaviors as his way of showing that he loved her. The counselor taught Brenda cognitive techniques  to help her confront this distorted thinking, and they worked on strengthening her self-esteem and re-establishing her other social connections. When she felt ready, Brenda broke up with her boyfriend and was able to focus on creating healthy relationships.

Do you think you or someone you love may be in an unhealthy relationship? Take this quiz

*Brenda represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.

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Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to teens and parents that are affordable, accessible, and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.