What we can do about teen dating violence

Hooking up. Hanging out. Facebook official. Regardless of what teens call their romantic and/or sexual relationships, teens deserve to be happy, healthy and safe. Teen dating violence is a significant problem in Maine communities, and everyone has a role to play in its prevention and intervention.

Approximately 9 percent of high school students have been hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or a girlfriend within the last year. This number does not account for the verbal, sexual or emotional abuse teens also face in abusive relationships. So what do we do about it?

Like many victims of domestic and sexual violence, teens who experience dating violence may feel confused by what is going on in their relationship, and they may not know they are experiencing abuse.

The first step is helping young people understand how to tell a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one. Teens need to know the warning signs of abuse, but they also need to know what a healthy, safe relationship looks like. Most young people have seen models of unhealthy relationships at one time or another, so it is doubly important that we speak with them explicitly about what healthy relationships look like and how to treat a partner with respect and caring.

Students in schools across Maine are learning about healthy relationships, healthy sexuality and being an engaged bystander, which are key components to preventing teen dating violence. Thousands of students a year learn the skills and behaviors that help them to prevent, recognize and respond to relationship violence. Maine’s domestic and sexual violence prevention educators provide education to students across the state that is informed by national best practices and evidence-based curriculums.

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The next step is to help peers and caring adults step up as engaged bystanders. More than half of America’s teens know someone who has experienced some form of relationship violence. So peers – friends, classmates and other students at school – have a role to play in helping identify unhealthy behaviors and getting their friends the help they need. Parents and other trusted adults – teachers, guidance counselors, friends’ parents – can be engaged bystanders, too. Having difficult conversations with the teenagers in your life is among the many powerful tools adults have to help make sure teens and communities are safe. It also models the importance of being an engaged bystander, which helps reinforce what teens are learning at school.

We are accountable to each other in our communities to educate one another, to have each other’s backs, and to stand up for others who may not be able to stand up for themselves. In many instances, we can help address problems that may have lifelong consequences for our teens. We owe it to the youth in our communities not only to be aware of teen dating violence, but to work to prevent it. Regardless of whether the teens in your life have made their relationship Facebook official, there is a way for them to be happy, healthy and safe.

Have you been an engaged bystander to the teen in your life today?

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Regina Rooney is the public awareness coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, and Cara Courchesne is the communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault

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