In a national study only 32% of teens reported that they would tell an adult about their experience of teen dating violence (TRU, 2009). Youth report that they seldom tell adults about their experience of teen dating violence (TDV) because they believe that our interventions will make the situation worse. In spite of our best intentions, youth have not found adults to be very helpful in solving the problem of TDV and our blundered responses serve to reinforce the isolation and secrecy that youth experience around this social problem. We haven’t been good listeners.
Listen to the Audio
We have failed to listen to youth in a couple of key ways. First, we have spent more time telling youth about the risks in their environment than we’ve spent asking them about where they feel unsafe and working to increase safety in the places where harassment and abuse occur. Second, when youth tell us about an experience of abuse, our inclination to protect has frequently taken the form of control—telling youth how to manage the problem including who they tell, who they hang out with, where they go, and how they spend their time. We can do better by owning the responsibilities that we have as adults to create safe space, and by respecting teens’ experience and ability to make sound decisions about that experience.
Engaging youth as leaders has been identified as a best practice in the field of teen dating violence prevention (Robert Wood Johnson, 2012), and this just makes good common sense. Teens are in the best position to understand the dynamics of teen dating violence in their lives, and they have the credibility with their peers to effectively deliver prevention messages. We should ask them, and our best work will be guided by their answers.
Enhancing organizational safety
Young people report that harassment and abuse happen in private, but also in public spaces. Most of us have witnessed abusive behaviors in the hallways, the locker rooms, rest rooms, recreation rooms, busses, break rooms, and parking lots of the schools and organizations that teens occupy. If we tell teens that we think that abuse and harassment are wrong, but then leave those behaviors unchecked in our organizations, our words will lack credibility and the problem will persist.
Because abusive behaviors are playing out in public spaces, the research-based Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School prevention program works with youth to identify “hot spaces” in their schools, then to address those problem areas to better support school safety (Stein, Mennemeier, Russ & Taylor, 2011). The Shifting Boundaries program provides teens with simple blueprints of their schools and asks them to label the areas where they feel safe and where they feel unsafe. This data is then collected and organizational problem areas are identified. Adults in the schools then develop plans for how they can increase protective factors in those areas. Ideas have included increasing staff presence, changing the flow of youth traffic such that problematic areas become less isolated, and prominently posting prevention messages. The shifting boundaries curriculum is available at: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/ShiftingBoundariesLessonsRelationshipsStudentsInMiddleSchool_12-2010.pdf
This strategy solicits input from youth about the problem of TDV in their organizational environments and engages them as collaborators in the solution. Program evaluation funded by the Department of Justice found that this environmental change strategy resulted in an increase in pro-social behaviors among students like bystander interventions. Additionally, assessment conducted six months after the building intervention found an approximately 50% reduction in physical and sexual forms of TDV, and a 26-34% reduction in sexual harassment (Taylor, Stein, Woods & Mumford, 2011).
By listening to teens to enhance the safety of our organizations, we can create space where youth can safely learn and thrive. And because teens spend most of their time in organizations—school, clubs, teams, congregations, and workplaces—the norms that we establish there will influence their behavior in the other spheres of their lives.
An often repeated theme in working with adult survivors of domestic violence is that the victim is the best expert on her or his experience. In working with youth experiencing TDV, we’ve had a bad habit of forgetting this wisdom. With the intention of protecting, adults may attempt to restrict or control the victim’s environment. The victim of TDV probably wants the violence to end, but she probably doesn’t want to lose access to her cell phone, social media accounts, friend groups, social organizations, etc. And if we reflect honestly on this lockdown approach to disclosure, we probably aren’t encouraging future disclosure from this or other victims.
In addition to wanting safety for the victim, adults may want to pursue accountability for the perpetrator. It’s very important to recognize that the victim may or may not share this goal. Our impulses are well-intentioned; we want the perpetrators of TDV to be held accountable out of a sense of justice, to prevent him or her from offending again, and to offer interventions designed to change abusive behaviors. But it’s important that adults don’t push our desire for accountability if that agenda negatively impacts the victim’s strategy for safety. A victim of TDV may not want to pursue accountability options for emotional reasons, for social reasons, or because he doesn’t believe that our accountability systems will be able to keep him safe from retaliation.
Adults can be supportive and effective by talking with victims of TDV about their safety and accountability options, and collaborating with them to create the safety plan that best meets their needs. Adults can help victims to explore their options—including what’s possible within the organization as well as the community’s civil and criminal legal systems—and the possible pros and cons of each choice. An excellent model TDV safety plan can be found at:
A great strategy for enhancing the likelihood that youth will disclose experience of TDV, is adopting an organizational policy that offers the victim a range of reporting options (see the Stand 4 Us tab for more policy info). Break the Cycle created a policy model for Washington DC schools that enables victims to seek personal accommodations (scheduling changes, locker changes, etc.) without naming the perpetrator or to name the perpetrator to seek access to accountability systems. The policy encourages adults to maintain the victim’s confidentiality to the greatest extent possible within organizational practices and state law.
Break the Cycle. (n.d.). Safe schools model policy: A comprehensive approach to addressing dating violence and sexual violence in District of Columbia schools. Available at: http://www.breakthecycle.org/sites/default/files/pdf/dc-model-school-policy.pdf
Liz Claiborne, TRU. (2009). Impact of the Economy and Parent/Teen Dialogue on Dating Relationships and Abuse. Available at:
Stein, N., Mennemeier, K., Russ, N., & Taylor, B. (2011). Shifting boundaries: Lessons on relationships for students in middle school. Available at: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/ShiftingBoundariesLessonsRelationshipsStudentsInMiddleSchool_12-2010.pdf
Taylor, B., Stein, N., Woods, D., & Mumford, E. (2011). Shifting boundaries: Final report of an experimental evaluation of a youth dating violence prevention program in New York City middle schools. Available at: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236175.pdf
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