How to talk about abuse in your home

Image of a man comforting his teenage son at a table.

Open conversations are important if abuse is happening in your home and you have teenagers in your care. Giving teenagers a chance to hear from you and speak about their feelings can be very healing.

Do I have to talk with my teenager about domestic violence?

Even if they don’t witness the abuse directly, everyone in your home will be very aware that something isn't right. Ignoring the issue can leave a young person feeling more anxious and confused.

Talking about abuse with teenagers lets them know that they don't need to remain quiet or keep secrets if anyone hurts them. This can break the cycle of abuse and help them understand their right to safety and respect in their relationships.

How do I start the conversation?

There are many ways to start a conversation of this kind. Some things will depend on your own understanding of your teenager. It’s good to find a private time and place where you're unlikely to be interrupted.

We’ve provided some examples of general scripts, but this conversation is best done using your own words. Sometimes practising out loud can help you feel comfortable. These conversations aren't ones we ever expect to have, so it’s only natural to feel nervous and uncomfortable about beginning to speak about abuse.

You may want to start by saying something like “I was hoping to talk to you about the way [person] gets when they [are angry / controlling / have been drinking / are upset about something, etc.]”

From here you can:

Acknowledge that they know what is happening, to whatever degree:

“I know you’ve seen [person] behave abusively [or call me names / hurt me / scare me] before.”

“I know you’ve seen me upset because of things [person] does.”

“I know you can see things happening at home that aren't good.”

Let them know that you understand this affects them too:

“I see how sad/angry/scared/upset this makes you.”

Let them know that what is happening isn't OK:

“The way [person] gets when they [are angry/drunk/upset] isn't okay.”

“That sort of behaviour is never okay.”

Explain that the only person responsible for the abuse is the abusive person:

“It’s important you know that no one is to blame for what [person] does except them.”

“No matter what they say, that behaviour is never my fault or yours.”

Focus on what the abusive person does not who the person is:

“The things that [person] does are abusive and not okay.”

NOT: “[person] is a bad/abusive person.”

Ask them about their feelings and listen, allowing them to share openly without interruption or judgment:

“I see how this is affecting you. I want you to know you can talk to me about your feelings, whatever they are.”

“If you want to talk about how all of this is making you feel, I’m here to listen. You can talk to me any time.”

“If you don’t want to talk to me, we could also think of someone else you can talk to.”

Some more points to remember when talking about feelings:

  • Teenagers may have many complicated feelings, including things like guilt about loving the person doing the abuse, or resentment towards non-abusing loved ones.

  • Let them know these feelings are normal and that you love and support them no matter what.

  • Understand that they may not want to talk straight away, but let them know you are always there to listen.

  • They may not have the words yet to describe how they are feeling. Try not to load them with your words, but give them time to think and express their feelings. They may choose to do this in different ways, such as:

    • speaking to you or a close friend

    • writing

    • speaking with a 1800RESPECT counsellor

    • speaking with Kids Helpline or a counsellor at school

    • looking at websites, such as 1800RESPECT or ReachOut

    • calling the police and talking to a Domestic Violence Liason Officer.

Make it clear that it is not their responsibility to stop the abuse:

“It is not your job to stop what [person] is doing.”

“I know you want to help, but it is not safe for you to do that. You must never try to stop [person].”

Tell them that the most important thing to you is keeping everyone safe:

“There is a way you can help. It would be great if we could work together on a plan to help keep us as safe as possible. Do you think we could do that together?”

Tricky questions and reactions

It’s impossible to know how anyone will react to a conversation of this kind. Don’t take bad reactions personally or let hard questions put an end to the talking. Even if the conversation becomes tough, it is still playing a very positive role for your teenager’s wellbeing.

What if they don’t want to talk?

Let it go for now, but let them know you are there for them to talk to whenever they want.

It’s important not to use a rejection as a reason to avoid talking altogether. You may want to try again in a week or two. It can be a good idea to do things differently this time. For example, if your first conversation happened after school in the kitchen, you may want to try talking after dinner in the lounge room. Use your own best judgement and find a time and place that are private and safe for you both.

Again, let them know that you are always there to talk to, now or in the future.

What if they ask hard questions – how much should I tell them?

While it’s best to be guided by your teenager and their questions, you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay for you to find it hard to talk about certain things. You can be honest about this:

“I want to be as open and honest with you as I can, but there are some things that are hard for me to talk about.”

“The most important thing is that you know what's happening isn't okay and that I want to keep us safe.”

Let your teenager know you are always there for them to talk to, but if they want to talk to someone else, that’s okay too. You can offer to help them find another trusted adult they feel comfortable speaking with. You can also connect them with professional support service if that’s something they're open to.

Make sure you have the support you need, too

Don’t forget about yourself. These conversations can bring up a lot of emotion and it helps to have someone you can go to for support, such as a close and trusted friend or family member, or a professional support worker.

If having this conversation creates distress for you or your teenager, you can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or through online chat for support.