Teen Dating Violence: Raising Awareness

Teen Dating Violence: Raising Awareness

February 16, 2017

Did you know that one in three adolescents in the United States has experienced physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner? Or that nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year?

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and to shed light on this important issue we decided to ask an expert about it. Michelle Gagnon is a Domestic Violence Advocate with SafeHouse Denver. We sat down with Michelle and got her perspective on teen dating violence and the role sex ed and trusted adults can play.

1) Tell us about SafeHouse Denver and the work you do as a domestic violence advocate.

SafeHouse Denver is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing both emergency shelter and non-residential counseling and advocacy for adults, children, and youth who are victims of domestic violence. As a Domestic Violence Advocate with SafeHouse Denver, I provide individual advocacy-based counseling, primarily with teens and young adults. I also have the honor of running teen dating violence (TDV) prevention programs in the community. These psychoeducational groups are based in two settings: a Denver Public Schools high school for pregnant and parenting teen moms and Denver's juvenile diversion program. Through these groups I work to provide girls the tools they need to navigate healthy relationships. I talk with youth about how to identify relationships on the spectrum of healthy to unhealthy and to abusive. In the groups, we cover tools that teens can use daily, including red flags of an abusive partner, the cycle of violence, and how to talk to a friend who is in an abusive relationship. The groups serve as a setting for insightful and passionate discussions of how our cultural gender norms can affect our perception of who we are expected to be in an intimate relationship, and how misconceptions of masculinity can lead to the cultural acceptance of violence against women and girls.

2) February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Why do you think this is an important topic to raise awareness for?

February is a month that brings so much anxiety about relationships. It is a critical time for the community to refocus and recognize the prevalence and impact of teen dating violence. One in three youth will experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse by a dating partner. Studies show the first incident of dating violence happens between the ages of 11-17 years old. We have to raise awareness about the widespread reality of teens experiencing this amount of violence early in life. 81% of parents either admit they don't know if teen dating violence is an issue or, worse still, don’t believe it exists. We can no longer hide behind the cultural myth that teen relationships aren't as real or serious as adult relationships. Victims of dating violence are at a high risk of re-experiencing violence later in life and the emotional and mental impact of these relationships is staggering. These first relationships will end up setting the stage for future relationships. We all, teens and adults included, have to start calling out abuse when we see it to ensure it does not become an acceptable standard in relationships.

3) There are often a lot of misconceptions about dating violence. For example, many people think it would be easy to leave an abusive relationship. What do you wish more people knew about teen dating violence?

One of the biggest misconceptions we have about teen dating violence is that they are lesser in significance and therefore risk than adult relationships. In groups, when I ask how many of the girls have heard the phrase "you're too young to understand what real love is" every one of them will raise their hand. When it comes to dating violence, we have to recognize that their relationships are just as intense and real as anyone else's. Teens are experiencing physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and they are experiencing it in a unique way. The consistent exposure to social media, texting, and online dating creates a culture where a teen’s life is on public display. Teens are therefore vulnerable to constantly experiencing abuse via the virtual presence of their abusive partner. Even the physical space teens occupy in their day is different from adults. Many teens date other students in their school, which gives dating violence a unique existence. A current or past abusive partner can easily monitor their victim because they share the same hallways, friend groups, and class schedules. They are quickly and easily aware if their partner tries to reach out to a friend or staff member for support. In any other context we'd call this behavior stalking, so we can’t hesitate to do so in school settings. We have to recognize that dating violence in teen relationships is just as damaging as it is in adult ones.

4) How do you think comprehensive sex ed and teen dating violence prevention are related?

They are one and the same. If we are going to say sex ed is comprehensive, it has to include a discussion about tools for identifying TDV and the resources available if someone is experiencing it. The same applies to TDV prevention. Teen dating violence prevention has to include communication skills about sex and ways to identify our sexual relationships as healthy or unhealthy. Both should be based on providing a safe place where teens can start recognizing their rights and expectations in all realms of relationships. If the sex ed lesson involves learning how to use different forms of protection, then it should also include skills on how to have the conversation about what type of protection dating partners prefer and why. We should also make clear that when a partner is coercing someone’s decisions about contraception, pregnancy, and STI testing, that is in fact a form of abuse called reproductive coercion. We can all help students learn that consent and choice exist beyond sex in a relationship, and that the skills they learn to set healthy boundaries around sex can be applied to every other aspect of a healthy relationship. If we can talk to every student about healthy and abusive relationships, then the student who is experiencing teen dating violence (now or in the future) will have access to the information they need, and will know they have a safe professional to talk to about it.

5) What role do you think trusted adults play in the prevention of or response to teen dating violence?

There are two ways that I want to answer this. One is the importance of educators providing every teen access to information about TDV and the other is why adults and educators can be a model of healthy relationships. We all know teens are more likely to turn to their peers when they need help or a supportive ear. If our teens don't know the language to identify abuse for themselves, they aren't going to know how to talk to their friends who are in abusive relationships. Part of our goal should be to help teens realize that they can be a key figure in helping their friends who are experiencing TDV. Doing this will end up being one of the best and most effective prevention models you can provide. The other important piece is the reality that a common tactic of an abuser is to distance the victim from their friends and family. This is where adults and educators come in. Not only can you constantly be modeling healthy relationships, but you can also become the safe, supportive person for teens to turn to when experiencing TDV. Don't worry about having all the answers; that's why domestic violence and sexual assault agencies exist. If you need support or have questions, SafeHouse Denver’s 24-hour crisis line number is 303-318-9989.

6) What advice would you give to trusted adults or sex educators when they talk to youth who have experienced or are experiencing dating violence?

Most caring adults worry for the teen who is experiencing dating violence, and reasonably so. However, the reality is that for most adults our instinct is to jump in with the "shoulds": you should do this, or you shouldn't do that. Teens who are experiencing dating violence, just like adults, are the experts of their own relationships. So just be straightforward, honest, and open-minded with them. And know that sometimes the most powerful thing is to let the teen know you'll be there for them no matter what.

7) What gives you hope?

In every group I’ve led, at least one girl has complained that this would be a waste of her time. Without fail, the girl who tells me this ends up talking more than her peers and walks out of group saying "I thought this was gonna suck, but it wasn't the worst thing I've done. I actually
liked it." It sounds small, but that tells me they got something out of the experience. If one teen feels empowered to take ownership of their dating rights and can call out the good, the bad, and the ugly, then that means one more teen is a little safer.

To learn more about SafeHouse Denver or donate, visit their website at http://www.safehouse-denver.org/.

For more information about teen dating violence, check out these resources:

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