In my role as Youth Education Specialist at REACH, I have the opportunity to talk with young people every day about healthy and unhealthy relationships, teen dating violence, and what they can do when they notice red flags in a friend’s relationship. When I begin teaching a new class of students, I often share some about myself and how I got into this work as part of my introduction.
I tell them about how as a teen growing up in Arizona, I didn’t have the opportunity to have open conversations about relationships at school. We spent one class period my Junior year of high school briefly discussing birth control methods, but didn’t ever talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships. As a high school student, I felt frustrated that we didn’t have more open conversations about issues that were going to impact us in very real ways for the rest of our lives. I felt that teens deserved accurate information and tools that could help them make the right choices for them around relationships and sex.
In college, I joined a volunteer program where I had the opportunity to lead workshops on sexual health at local high schools. One Summer, back at home in Arizona, I did an internship at a local non-profit that provided services to survivors of domestic violence. I re-connected with my friends from high school and we would talk about life at college as well as what we were up to over the summer. I talked to my friends about my internship, and even did a mini “workshop” in my friend’s living room based on the curriculum I used as a peer health educator at college.
Later in college, one of my high school friends reached out to me to talk about a relationship that wasn’t going so well. Her boyfriend had started getting jealous and upset when she would hang out with her friends who were guys. Later in their relationship, he also ended up being physically abusive towards her. For many teens experiencing controlling and abusive behaviors in a relationship can be confusing. Often young people in abusive relationships won’t reach out for support from friends or adults in their lives. They may fear that they will be judged for being in the relationship in the first place or worried their partner will find out they told someone about the abuse. They may not be ready to end the relationship and fear (often realistically) that they will be forced to break up.
Unlike many teens that fear breaking the silence, my friend told me and many of our friends about what was going on in her relationship. She reached out for support, even before the physical abuse started, and had an opportunity to talk through what was going on in her relationship. I think that my friend felt comfortable reaching out to us because we had already been having conversations about these issues. I had told her about the internship I was doing over the Summer and had created a safe space for open conversations through the “living room workshop” I had led for my friends. She knew that it was ok to talk with us about these issues and that we would be supportive if she reached out.
According to loveisrespect.org one in three young people in the United States will experience physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. I know that most of the teens that I work with, at some point in their life, will have a friend in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. My hope is that when that happens they will be able to identify red flags in their friend’s relationship and have strategies to reach out to and support that friend. But perhaps even more importantly, my goal is that when these issues come up in a friend’s relationship that this will not be the first time they have talked about these issues.
Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is important because it creates an opportunity to start the conversation. It is an opportunity for young people to bring this issue to their schools and their communities, to their sports teams and their church youth groups. It’s also an opportunity for parents and teachers, sports coaches and other important adults in teens lives to open up a conversation around these issues and let young people know its ok to turn to them for support.
Similarly, my final goal when I work with young people is to let them know they’re not alone. Whether they are noticing red flags in their own relationship or in a friends’, there is support available and they don’t have to deal with the situation all by themselves. When I was supporting my friend, I let her know about the hotline at the organization where I was interning and she was able to reach out and get support. At REACH, we get many calls on our confidential, 24/7 hotline from friends, families and neighbors who are concerned about a loved one. And for many young people who feel more comfortable chatting or texting about relationship questions, organizations such as loveisrespect.org have peer advocates who are available to chat, text or talk about relationship issues 24/7.