Start the Conversation: Ending Teen Dating Violence

Let's imagine for a moment that a student walks into their first day of algebra class, takes a seat and is immediately presented with the final exam. It's safe to assume the student would probably fail the test. After all, how can you expect someone to succeed in a subject they've never been taught?

Yet when it comes to dating relationships, we often expect young people to have all the answers without ever studying the subject. If we want to end teen dating violence, we need to have more involved conversations with our young people around the topic of dating relationships.

This past summer, my hometown of Wayland, Mass. was rocked by its first murder in over 20 years -- the devastating death of a recent high school graduate at the hands of her controlling ex-boyfriend. As the small town struggled to cope with the horrific incident, a stunned classmate was quoted as saying "This type of thing doesn't happen here." The girl was perhaps suggesting that violence doesn't happen in small suburban communities. The sad reality is, however, that domestic abuse takes place everywhere.

Teen dating violence runs across race, gender, and socioeconomic lines. And since young people are far less likely than adults to report abuse, the mistreatment often goes on completely unaddressed. In my time teaching prevention programming at Chicago area schools, it has become evident that many young people are simply not identifying the abuse in the first place. With so few examples of healthy relationships to draw upon for guidance, many students are learning the wrong behaviors very early on.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of seventh grade students "What should you do if someone cheats on you?" The response I received almost left me speechless. "That's when you go get razor blades and lemons and teach her not to cheat again." Somewhere along the line, this 12-year-old boy in the back row of my class had been taught that if someone cheats on you, you cut them. As a class we stopped and investigated the whole scenario. Your partner cheated on you and, yes, you're probably mad about it -- but what are your options for handling the situation?

The class drafted up a list of options, including ending the relationship without the use of violence. As the discussion continued, the class reached a consensus that it wasn't worth it to seek revenge. They agreed that a relationship without trust isn't a relationship worth holding onto anyways. By the time the bell rang, it seemed as though we had sufficiently introduced some healthy methods for handling the situation. Regardless, I was left feeling confounded. Just imagine the violent consequences that could have transpired had that young man not participated in our conversation.

Inviting a teen dating violence prevention program to your school means acknowledging that a problem might exist; a recognition that some schools are not yet willing to make and some parents do not want to accept. As a result, our program at Between Friends is taught primarily at schools located in low-income areas where violence prevention programs are more heavily sought after.

We offer a variety of programming but the most popular curriculum runs for eight weeks and covers a diversity of topics including two weeks dedicated to discussing the components of a healthy relationship. Last year my co-facilitator and I taught programming to over 3,000 students here in Chicago. No matter what school we visit, the students share a similar reaction to the program -- they want to talk about dating relationships and they have questions that need answering.

After leading the same discussions with young people on multiple occasions, some themes begin to emerge. One such theme is where young people are learning their relationship behaviors. It turns out teens are very quick to emulate the actions of adults, whether on television or at home, resulting in some pretty mixed messages. Students who witness domestic violence at home are more likely to experience abuse in their own relationships but even students from stable homes run the risk of encountering dating violence. The opportunity to sit down and discuss the subject with a trusted adult can make all the difference.

As adults we have a responsibility to create safe spaces for young people to talk about difficult topics. We get taught very early on that relationships are private, and this has resulted in a reluctance on behalf of adults to discuss the topic of dating with young people. We can no longer afford to sit back and wait for the conversation to come to us. Relationships are a complex and challenging thing to navigate and without prior experience to help guide them, young people are at an even higher risk for abuse than adults. If we want our young people to have successful relationships, we need to talk to them about it. After all, you can't expect someone to succeed in a subject they've never been taught.