By Suzanne Schrag, BA | February 8, 2021
Product Manager/Editor, ETR
Being able to recognize warning signs of unhealthy or abusive relationships and knowing how to access resources for help are critical components of preventing teen dating violence. But there is an additional focus you can include in a lesson to deepen the learning and reach adolescents with more of the knowledge and skills they need to keep themselves safe.
Knowing the Negative Isn’t Enough
Simply presenting the risks and negative outcomes of a behavior or situation may not always be enough. Acknowledging the perceived benefits a person gets from a risky or unhealthy behavior is an important component of behavior change. Including discussion of the reasons a person might stay in an unhealthy relationship can help teens recognize their own motivations or blind spots, so that they can separate these from the negative experiences of a particular unhealthy relationship and meet their needs through healthier connections. Asking students why someone might stay in a relationship in which a partner treats them badly or even abuses them can get the discussion started.
Some Key Points to Address
- Strong feelings. The feelings that come with being attracted to someone can be very strong. Good feelings of excitement, pleasure, and love can often make people overlook early warning signs. Strong feelings of attraction can sometimes be confusing and lead to misunderstandings and communication problems. Some teens may feel jealousy for the first time. Some may be afraid of losing a partner. Some may have a hard time controlling their anger. Strong emotions can also confuse a person and keep them from seeing a situation clearly or taking action.
- Lack of social skills. Dating is a new experience for many teens. Teens are still learning to make good choices, communicate feelings appropriately, and get help when they need it. Lack of experience and social skills can make violence in teen dating relationships more likely.
- Confusion or mixed signals. Abuse often follows a cycle of violence. An abusive partner may follow acts of violence with apologies, claims of love, and acts of kindness or affection. This can be confusing and make it easier for the abused partner to excuse the violent behavior.
- Power and control issues. Some teens want to feel in control or believe they have power over others. This can make a person more likely to be abusive in a dating situation. When there’s a difference in power between partners, for example, if one is several years older than the other, dating violence may be more likely. Sometimes the abused partner thinks they can change the other person if they stay.
- Desire for a relationship. Liking and wanting to be with someone can be strong motivators to keep a relationship going even when it’s not healthy. Fear of losing the relationship or the hope that things will change can keep someone in denial about the abuse. Some teens feel very protective of their relationships and being allowed to date, so they don’t want anyone to know that the abuse is happening.
- Low self-esteem. Teens who struggle with self-esteem issues may be more likely to tolerate abuse or even feel they deserve it. They may blame themselves for the problems in the relationship.
- Not having healthy role models. Teens may model their relationship on the relationships they see around them. If there’s abuse among their family or friends, they may be more likely to accept dating violence or view it as a “normal” part of relationships.
- Outside influences. Violence is always more likely when alcohol or other drugs are being used. Being around others who are violent and having access to weapons can also make dating violence more likely.
- Being embarrassed, feeling afraid or not knowing where to go for help. The choice to get help for or leave a violent dating relationship can be a hard one to make. The longer an abusive relationship goes on, the stronger the barriers to getting help might become. Sometimes the threat of violence keeps teens from telling others or asking for help. Teens may be afraid or embarrassed to share the details of an abusive relationship. And sometimes teens just don’t know where to go for help.
Personalize the Learning
Ask students to consider whether they’ve experienced any of these things, or which they think might be most powerful for them, to personalize the learning. Helping young people understand and explore the emotions and circumstances that may keep someone from acknowledging problems or taking action when abuse is happening can enable them to recognize these factors in their own relationships. Along with teaching the warning signs to look for and providing local resources for help, this can empower them to form healthier connections and avoid dating violence.
Learn More with HealthSmart
The Violence & Injury Prevention unit in ETR’s HealthSmart program for High School includes a lesson on dating violence, as well as lessons on bullying/cyberbullying, hazing, hate violence, sexual harassment, suicide, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse.
Did you know ETR also offers a new line of Title IX educational materials? You can check out our new pamphlets, brochures, and lesson plans on the ETR Store.
Suzanne Schrag (she/her/hers) is a co-developer and the series editor of HealthSmart, ETR’s K–12 comprehensive health education program. She can be reached at email@example.com.