By Robert Abare
Written by Lynn Rosenthal, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships, National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Every day at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and loveisrespect, our youth-focused project with Break the Cycle, we hear from young people by text, chat and phone about relationship abuse. With their stories in mind, we recognize February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. This month presents an important opportunity for educators to talk about this complicated and growing issue and learn more about how they are uniquely positioned to help.
You may have heard the disturbing statistics. According to the CDC’s Youth Behavioral Risk Assessment Survey, one in 10 teens reported being “hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend” in a 12-month period. This number has remained unchanged over the past decade. The effects of dating violence can be significant for young people of any gender, race or background. Teens who experience dating violence are more likely to consider or attempt suicide, use alcohol or drugs, engage in risky sexual behavior and experience intimate partner violence (IPV) as adults.
The signs of abuse are not always as visible as pushing, biting, hitting, kicking, slamming and other forms of physical violence. Abuse in teen relationships can also be sexual, emotional and/or digital. Sexual abuse can range from coercion and pressure to engage in sexual activity (including sexting) to unwanted touching and rape. Emotional abuse includes put-downs, criticism, extreme jealousy or possessiveness, controlling behavior and threats. Teens are particularly affected by digital abuse, which primarily occurs via cell phone or social media channels. Digital abuse ranges from posting rumors online, constant texting, sexting coercion, circulating or threatening to distribute sexually explicit pictures by text or on social media, stealing or pressuring to share passwords and online stalking.
While the data paints a bleak picture, there is much we can all do to stop teen dating violence. Teens need caring adults in their lives who understand what they are going through and can help them recognize healthy and unhealthy dating behaviors. Anyone who works with teens can make a difference whether you are a school principal, counselor, nurse or after-school provider.
Here are four things you can do:
1. Know the warning signs.
You might see changes in a teen’s behavior that indicate something is wrong. These could include frequent absences, changes in school performance, loss of friendships, anxiety and depression and physical injuries. While these warning signs could indicate other problems, you might also observe a teen dealing with obsessive jealousy from a partner, stalking, verbal abuse, constant texting, threats and physical violence such as shoving, hitting, kicking, arm-twisting and slamming. Any one of these signs could indicate that a teen is involved in an abusive relationship.
2. Know the resources nationally and in your community.
loveisrespect was the first 24-hour resource for young people experiencing violence and those concerned about their relationships. At loveisrespect.org, teens can find quizzes, articles, blog posts and educational materials about dating violence and healthy relationships. Teens can also call, text or chat to talk confidentially with a trained peer advocate. Many local domestic violence programs provide services for teens and may also offer educational programs for professionals and school personnel. Contact loveisrespect or your state domestic violence coalition for resources in your community. Be proactive and gather this information now so that you are ready when you see a teen in need of help.
3. Work with schools to develop research-informed policies and programs to address teen dating violence.
A number of states require that schools educate students about teen dating violence, and around the country schools are working to implement policies and procedures to address this issue. Whether your state requires it or not, your school can be a leader in strengthening its response to dating violence and promoting healthy relationships by drawing on available resources and examples. Break the Cycle has created this helpful framework for developing school policies. Shifting the Boundaries is one example of an evidence-based program that emphasizes education for students and policies to decrease dating violence and sexual harassment at schools. Here is a sample school policy developed by the Idaho Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
4. Talk with teens about healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, many teens believe that unhealthy and abusive dating behaviors are the norm. Children see and hear messages about violence daily from movies, music, art and other forms of popular culture, or even from family and friends. For example, little girls are often told that boys hit or pull their hair because “he likes you.” Taking moments to educate about what’s healthy or not healthy in a relationship can help young people recognize when something isn’t right. We can all make a difference by talking with children and teens about relationships built on mutual respect, trust and caring. loveisrespect offers a variety of printable handouts and materials to help get conversations started in the home or classroom.
More resources for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: