Teen dating violence (TDV) is a normalized part of our society. It’s all around us in the media, popular culture, social media sites and hallways. Changing that culture sounds like a tall order, but after all, society is us. And most of us can identify at least one person whose example moved us. As individuals, we can be catalysts of cultural change and the ripple effect of our behavioral influence can help to activate all of those who agreed with us all along, but didn’t know how to take a stand.
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In the past, teen dating violence prevention efforts have focused pretty exclusively on words. Talking about TDV is a good place to start, but to really influence teens’ relationship expectations, we are most effective when we back up our words with actions. We can be really intentional about the values that we are modeling in our relationships, and we can show our commitment by stepping up when we see abusive behaviors. As leaders in organizations, we can demonstrate that respectful relationships are our priority by creating space in the schedule for prevention education and activities.
Modeling healthy relationships
Young people have been calling adults on the “do as I say, not as I do” problem forever. And they kind of have a point. Our behavior demonstrates the values that we’re willing to take a stand for. It might work best to start by simply noticing. How do we interact in our relationships and what do we see in the relationships around us? As adults, we tell young people that healthy relationships are characterized by equality, honesty, good communication, fairness and trust. Are we promoting these values in our interactions with the people who are close to us? How well do we relate with our partners, family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues? Are our relationships a good example?
Here are some questions to guide our observations about the relationships that we engage in:
How well do we share in our intimate relationships?
- Are we honest with our feelings (and facts)?
How do we manage conflict?
- How well do we listen?
- Do we give our honest attention to dissenting points of view?
- Are we assertive?
- Do we communicate in a way that is safe and fair?
Do we have the same expectations for boys and girls?
- Why or why not?
- Do these expectations make sense?
- Are they fair?
How do we interact with people who have less power (including youth)?
- Are we aware of the power differential and how that probably impacts the less powerful person’s communication?
- Do we listen with that lens?
Do we have the same standard of respectful communication when we’re on Facebook and other social media sites?
By exploring these questions about our own relationships, adults can work to make sure that our advice to teens about healthy relationships and our behavior line up.
Teens consistently report that abusive behaviors are happening in public places (AAUW, 2011). Adults typically have some presence in these spaces, but we seem to have normalized a level of abusive interpersonal behavior. Youth report that adults seldom intervene unless harassment and abuse escalate to physical acts of violence.
There has long been a sense among adults that these behaviors are just “kids being kids”, and that verbal harassment doesn’t have a significant impact. But young people tell us that they are negatively impacted by these behaviors. In the American Association of University Women’s 2011 report about sexual harassment in schools, 48% of students reported an experience of sexual harassment within the 2010-2011 school year, and the majority of those reported that the experience had a negative effect on them. Girls identified negative impacts including loss of sleep (22%), and not wanting to go to school (37%) (AAUW, 2011).
It’s time for adults to recalibrate our threshold for intervention. Abusive behavior between young people is our business, and we are frequently supported by organizational anti-harassment and abuse policies in taking a stand to demonstrate our shared commitment to respectful behavior. Again, it might work best to begin by noticing. What’s going on with youth in your organizations?
- Do they respect one another’s physical boundaries? When young people have physical contact, does it appear to be in the context of mutual comfort and affection?
- What kind of language is used about physical appearance, gender and sexuality?
- How are you supported by your organization in taking a stand against derogatory language or harassment?
- How might you productively intervene?
Taking a stand against abusive and harassing behaviors doesn’t mean taking a stand against flirting. To an observer, flirting would typically appear to be mutual, exciting and fun; harassment would appear to be one-sided, demeaning and aggressive. Check the body language of the participants, does the exchange appear to be equal and open, or does one person appear to be controlling the interaction? Not knowing merits asking. Such an intervention will help to clarify what’s going on, to diffuse the situation if it is an abusive one, and to model that in your organization, when you aren’t sure about the impact of behavior, you ask! For more active bystander strategy information, visit ICADV’s website: http://www.icadvinc.org/prevention/for-bystanders/
By conducting prevention education we equip teens with information that enables them to evaluate the health of their relationships, and we demonstrate that we believe this issue is worth our time. With all of the competing responsibilities that schools and other youth serving organizations must meet, it’s tough to make time for prevention education. In a national survey conducted in 2009, only 25% of teens reported that they had received education about TDV and healthy relationships at school, but kids who had that education reported that it helped them (TRU, 2009). 75% of kids who participated in healthy relationship education reported that they felt better equipped to identify signs of an abusive relationship (TRU, 2009). Kids say that they want prevention education, and as adults we can look for ways to incorporate this type of curriculum in schools, in after school programming, and in other community-based youth serving organizations.
There is help available for programs considering implementing prevention education! There are a number of prevention curricula available nationally with varying numbers of sessions and areas of focus. In accordance with the legal requirements of Heather’s Law (Indiana’s teen dating violence legislation passed in 2009), the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) has worked to identify model TDV prevention curricula, and to make that information available to Indiana schools.
Because few TDV curricula have been formally evaluated, The IDOE created a system for assessing the strengths of prevention programs. The IDOE created a matrix to guide the assessment of the degree to which prevention curricula cover the nine standards of effective prevention strategy articulated in research literature (Nation, et al, 2003; the language was changed slightly to apply to the primary prevention of DV and SA by the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, 2009). The IDOE then convened a panel of experts in TDV prevention to review submitted curricula and to provide feedback about the relative strengths of each curriculum. To date, the IDOE has posted information about 11 curricula including both national and Indiana-based programs. Information about each of these curricula is available at the IDOE’s website:
http://www.doe.in.gov/student-services/identified-model-teen-dating-violence-curricular-materials-0 This is a great place to start to learn about available curricula, to think about your organization’s needs, and to select a program that is well suited to your community’s unique needs and strengths.
Additionally, there are prevention practitioners across the state of Indiana who are available to help you develop your prevention education plans. The following link will connect you to a map identifying preventionists serving in programs statewide.
https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=210903063135330981695.0004af95eab138a554212 You can use the map to find a prevention practitioner in your area to discuss your prevention strategy, and to discuss training for youth and members of staff.
American Association of University Women. (2011). Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school. Available at: http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/upload/CrossingTheLine.pdf
Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wandersman, A., Kumpfer, K., Seybolt, D., Morrissey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003). What works in prevention: Principles of effective prevention programs. American Psychologist, 58 (6/7), pps. 449-456.
TRU, 2009. Troubled economy linked to high levels of teen dating violence and abuse survey. Available at: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/LoveIsNotAbuse_EconomyTDVSurvey_Summ_2009.pdf
Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. (2009). Guidelines for the primary prevention of sexual and intimate partner violence. Retrieved October 14, 2009, from http://www.vsdvalliance.org/secPublications/Prevention%20Guidelines%202009%5B1%5D.pdf