February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: How Can Adults Help?
Co-authored by Marina Sampanes Peed and Amanda Makrogianis Mickelsen
One in three teens experiences verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from a dating partner.
That’s a lot of young people.
Our society’s cultural norms foster these harms in a way that goes unnoticed, largely because these models are woven into the fabric of our collective mindset. Becoming aware of problematic norms and talking openly about their implications can help to change the conversation and lead to a shift towards healthy relationships.
What Exactly Is Teen Dating Violence?
Most people think of violence in the most visible form – physical harms. In fact, relationship violence includes many forms of violations of interpersonal trust and care. Dating violence (any relationship actually) may include verbal assaults and degradation, sexual coercion, assault, and abuse, psychological abuse, stalking, financial, and cyber-bullying.
The Norms We Know
The teen years are full of cognitive and physiological changes, hormonal evolutions and the navigation of social and structural expectations. Add to the mix that technology provides young people 24/7 access to pornography and constant sexual messages in marketing, social media, and entertainment…and quite the recipe emerges.
Pervasive cultural beliefs around sexuality and gender roles perpetuate unhealthy relationships and contribute to the normalization of dating violence among teens.
“Boys will be boys” and “She loves me” and “It’s not that bad”.
Society perpetuates beliefs that coercion is part of a mating dance. Girls learn very early to expect sexual aggression and violence while simultaneously being expected to prevent it. When attachment occurs, it is tempting to excuse a partner’s harmful behavior.
The Cycle of Relationship Violence
The Teen Power and Control Wheel shows how the cycle perpetuates itself without intervention.
People who abuse may believe:
- they possess their partner
- strength equals physical aggressiveness
- they have the right to control their partner in any way, including demanding intimacy
- being a “nice guy” can cause young males to lose social capital
Their partners may believe:
- their partner’s jealousy and possessiveness is romantic
- they are “lucky” to have a cute, popular or powerful person “into them”
- they are the ones responsible for solving problems in the relationship
- abuse is normal because friends or other peers may also experience it
It is promising to know that this unhealthy mindset can merely be a developmental phase, leaving much opportunity for growth and change.
Young minds are like sponges absorbing information through societal observation – at home, within the family, and what is seen and read on TV, movies and in books. Their sense of self-worth is garnered from parents, family, friends and peer groups. Yet sex and consent are not topics that are talked about openly and can be seen as taboo in many households and societal institutions like church or school.
How Can Adults Provide Guidance?
- Model healthy, nonviolent communication and self-respect
- Be good listeners
- Point out healthy relationships
- Talk about the established cultural norms – and don’t be afraid to challenge them
- Affirm individual worth and importance
- Encourage young people to express their feelings
- Provide tools to navigate various social settings
- Offer a safe space for teens to talk among themselves
Challenging the Norms
Although parents may feel further away from their children during the teen years, it’s important to remember that their perceptions around established norms can shift as difficult conversations about dating violence are kept front and center. In the paraphrased words of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’.