We're in Canada, if that's relevant.

My partner and I live by ourselves (late 20's), and my partner's 16 year old step-sister has recently fled an emotionally abusive home life (no physical abuse so far as we can tell). Because there's no physical abuse, we're finding it much harder to determine how we should evaluate the situation - damage is much less tangible.

How can we, as outsiders, tell how much emotional abuse is "too much", to the point where it's beneficial for a teenager to be removed from their parents? Is it appropriate to react to this situation by offering to host her while she figures things out? Are there best practices or guidelines for what to do when on the receiving end of a runaway?

What factors should be considered when deciding whether we should support her independence, try and push her and her parents back together, or try to stay as neutral as possible in everything?

Edit: While previously on friendly terms with the parents, they've gone somewhat "off the rails" now and lashed out at anyone who has contact with their daughter. They follow her friends on social media (she's blocked them), hunting for untagged pictures, and wait outside her school to find out where she's staying etc. I would be hesitant to try and confront the parents about the situation and try and have a reasoned discussion, as they're unstable enough to fall into "scary" territory.

Update: For anyone who happens upon this, I figured it was worth updating how it played out. Roughly 2 years on:

  • Step sister was reasonably well prepared to run away, as much as a 16 year old could be. She stayed with her biological sister for a short time but the sister was not in a position to support the step-sister (same family, similar situation, also ran away when she was younger)
  • We hosted the step sister for just over a year
  • Her parents went a bit more crazy, abusing each other, threatening to show up at our house and take her back, nothing actually happened though (we got a heads up they were on their way over, so we left and locked all the doors, no idea if they actually showed up)
  • Entire side of the family cut us off, which was difficult for my partner but easier when it was so obvious who the terrible people were
  • Eventually it came out that there was some physical abuse, but "not that bad" (not downplaying physical abuse, just saying the step sister considered the emotional abuse to be more impactful, which says a lot...)
  • My partner helped step-sister get settled, got all the needed ID (parents held it hostage), got a driver's license, etc.
  • Step-sister did a few therapy sessions, but was not eager enough to continue on her own
  • Step sister graduated high school (yay!) and did a year of university in a program that supports those who don't really have the skills or knowledge to be in university. This was a personal goal of step-sister.
  • As you might imagine, university went terribly. No study skills, too much life to live out from under oppressive parents
  • Now she's mostly living a mundane adult life - job, boyfriend, friends, etc.
  • Hi there. Currently this question is not in a suitable format for answering here. Firstly, it is incredibly long and almost unreadable. And secondly, there are no actual answers to the questions you have listed on your tl;Dr - all possible answers may be correct depending on your specific circumstances
    – Rory Alsop
    Jun 17, 2017 at 21:26
  • Can you elaborate on how it's unreadable? Is it simply that it's too long and convoluted, or is there something about the format or writing itself that is unreadable? Jun 17, 2017 at 21:31
  • With regards to all possible answers potentially being correct, what are the circumstances that they would depend on? An answer that addresses "how much emotional abuse is 'too much'", or the pros and cons of removing a child from their household would provide valuable insight. Jun 17, 2017 at 21:38
  • Now the post is much better! I think it is answerable (sorry it took me a while to get back to you - I was asleep)
    – Rory Alsop
    Jun 18, 2017 at 6:46

2 Answers 2


How can we, as outsiders, tell how much emotional abuse is "too much", to the point where it's beneficial for a teenager to be removed from their parents? ...What factors should be considered when deciding whether we should support her independence...(?)

She's a runaway; it's not relevant at this moment in time for you to try to determine how much abuse is enough to merit removal from her home. She's made the decision for everybody.

Is it appropriate to react to this situation by offering to host her while she figures things out?

Absolutely. You can offer her safety, support, love, and if accepted, guidance. Her alternatives are to live with a friend (if she's fortunate), live in a shelter, live with someone she's met, or live on the street. Your home is safer than most of the alternatives.

The fact that her parents are hostile to you complicates matters considerably, but consider the alternatives, and make your decision.

I can't speak for many parents, but I do have experience with a few parents who had such an unhealthy relationship with their child that they made people who tried to help into enemies. That's not a normal response to your child running away; it's an extremely controlling one.

Being concerned about their child's safety is normal, as is wanting her returned home. But if the teen chooses the street over home, the healthy thing for parents is to want her to be in a safe place. Also, loving parents with a troubled relationship with their child do not refuse to allow the child access to help of most kinds, including therapy.

Your comment leads me to believe the trouble at home is pretty bad (very controlling, rigid parents, perhaps.)

If you do take in this teen, please involve her in therapy. She needs help, and the sounding board you provide may not be enough. Set some ground rules that you agree upon together (and some she may not want to agree to but are helpful to her anyway.) Be prepared to deal with a lot of rebellion (some of which is normal at this age, but some will be because she sees herself as self-determining now.) Have patience and get help if needed.

Good luck. Your hearts are in a good place.


I have something to say that won't fit into a comment, so I'm offering it up as an answer even though it's only a partial one at best.

Is it appropriate to react to this situation by offering to host her while she figures things out?

I'd think this was an excellent solution if her parents were okay with it, because there'd be no need to actually get involved in the conflict between daughter and parents directly - you'd just offer a way to deescalate, and maybe with passing time things might also become clearer to you. So I suggest you talk with her parents. They might be glad for the chance, in which case I really can't see any problem, or they might resist, but then I'd really be the wrong person to offer advice on how to handle that.

What I'd do - if you hosted her - was to set up a date up front when you all reevaluate the living arrangements, so that if it doesn't work out, it's clear just how long the arrangement will last, and if it doesn't work out at first, you don't immediately give up.

  • The parents are outraged the daughter has run away and are blaming anyone that tries to help the daughter and not forcibly returning her to them. The parents are not open to us even communicating with the daughter as there is some historical precedent of us being normal decent people and them feeling threatened we're trying to steal their daughter. Due to us not immediately respecting the parent's outrage, I imagine an explicit and constructive discussion is unlikely - the parents are not the type to sit and calmly discuss a situation and how to resolve it. Jun 18, 2017 at 15:06
  • 1
    In that case, I'd think that if you want to help the daughter, you won't be able to avoid direct confrontation with the parents. I don't think you can host her against the parents explicit wishes without running the danger of legal trouble, if her parents really are that far out of balance. You'll probably have to inform CPS or whatever it's called in Canada that the daughter is living with you, and in order to justify her not going back to her parents, she and you will probably have to explain further. Like I said, I'm not really qualified to advise on whether and how to do that. Jun 18, 2017 at 18:24

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