Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: Q&A with Womankind’s Ann Van

Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: Q&A with Womankind's Ann Van

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. To better understand what teen dating violence is and to bring more attention to this important issue, we interviewed Ann Van, Womankind’s Residential Advocate for Children and Youth. Ann works with youth who move into our emergency residences, which are safe spaces for people who are escaping violence at home. Her work involves helping youth adjust to a new way of life following their big move, understand what is happening in their family, and get on a path to do well in school and in the future. She also supports other child and youth programs at Womankind, including our annual summer trips.

1. Can you explain what Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM) is and why it's important for us to talk about it?

Since about 2010, we have recognized February as a month to draw attention to the issue of teen dating violence. Statistics show that 1 in every 12 teens have experienced some form of teen dating violence (CDC). However, we also know that teen dating violence is underreported because of how tricky it can be to recognize and fears about the aftermath of reporting abuse. TDVAM is an opportunity for young people to lead the conversation around teen dating violence, gain more support from the wider community, and make a huge effort preventing or ending violence happening among peers. Though teen dating violence highlights harm experienced by teens within peer and dating relationships, TDVAM also allows teens to talk about harm experienced in other relationships, including familial.

2. What are some common signs that a teen might be experiencing dating violence?

Teen dating violence, like all forms of abuse, is about controlling another person's life. This could look like having to constantly report your location to your partner, becoming isolated from other friends and family, or being expected to immediately respond to your partner's texts. Teen dating violence can also include emotional manipulation, like being told no one else will ever love you. Nonconsensual sexual activity is also a part of teen dating violence: getting unwanted sexts or being flashed, being touched or harassed, having your private photos leaked, or being forced to use or not use contraception. It's important to note that teen dating violence is not limited to people in a long-term or committed relationship. It is possible to experience forms of teen dating violence with a hook up or situationship.

3. In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges teens face in seeking help or support for dating violence?

Teen dating violence can be hard to recognize among teens. This is a time in life where young people may have their first ever relationship. With limited experience, it can be hard to know what to expect in a relationship, how normal someone's behavior is, or the best way to address concerns. Teens can also feel peer pressure to stay in a relationship if the harmful partner is part of a common friend group or helps you feel popular or wanted. Teens often have less resources to escape a violent situation, like no cab fare or safe place to go. Teens may also be hiding that they're dating, sexually active, or what their sexual orientation is (due to different societal, cultural and family pressures). If an incident happens, they may be concerned about outing themselves.

In addition, if the person harming is in a more influential position or position of authority, teens may fear not being believed or putting their family/friends in a difficult position. For many of our youth, the person harming them is a trusted family member. Speaking about the violence they are experiencing could create safety concerns such as being cut off from their trusted support network. Teens may also be accused of lying or engaging in attention-seeking behaviors. These barriers make teen dating violence distinct from violence experienced by adults.

4. How does Womankind approach the issue of teen dating violence? Are there specific programs or resources Womankind offers for teens?

At Womankind we intentionally work across the lifespan and within the family unit. We provide supportive counseling, case management, and group and community support to youth experiencing harm, as well as to youth interested in learning about and advocating against gender-based violence. Within this structure it is important to have robust conversations about how violence impacts youth. Decreasing this stigma, especially within communities of color and immigrant communities, provides opportunities for youth to speak out more about harm they may be experiencing instead of fearing cultural retribution or family backlash.

It is not only important to talk about dating violence and other forms of harm that impacts youth but to also encourage conversations that normalizes exploring the nuances of all relationships that a youth will have, as they are exploring and developing their identity. This includes romantic relationships but also friendships, professional relationships, etc. It is important to create and maintain space so young folks who are experiencing normal human wants and desires can know that there is support if those relationships don’t go as planned, start to feel uncomfortable or even dangerous.

5. What advice do you have for parents or guardians who suspect their child might be in an abusive relationship?

Parents can try to prevent an abusive relationship from developing by talking with their children about healthy relationships: What does respect look like? How can you maintain your own privacy and space in a relationship? How can someone demonstrate trust? What are your boundaries?

If parents suspect their child might be in an abusive relationship, remember to listen fully – try not to jump to conclusions, fill in the blanks about what might be happening, or blame or shame your child for being in this situation. It is important your child feels they can speak openly about what is happening to them. Understand your child may be navigating these complicated feelings for the first time. They may need coaching to understand why it's helpful to report abuse or take other steps to end the abuse. They may also need your support if their friends react negatively to the situation. While many parents never want to see their children suffer, remember this is a learning opportunity. If your child is able to navigate this one situation, they will be better prepared to address future incidents.

6. How can peers support friends who they think might be experiencing dating violence?

Listen, if you can, to what your friend is going through. The conversation may be difficult to hear, so consider looping in a trusted adult (Womankind Advocates are here to help too!). They may want your feedback about whether there is a problem in the relationship, whether it's worth it to speak up, etc. If you feel uncertain about answering these questions, think about them hypothetically: If there was a problem, what should we do? If you wanted to speak up, what should we say?

If your friend wants to end the relationship, help them plan the breakup and back them up in maintaining distance. Help them think about how they will manage running into their ex at school, around town, or even online.

7. How can teens themselves become advocates for preventing dating violence among their peers?

Many teens can recognize "red flags," behaviors or attitudes that are clearly harmful, unhealthy, or violate others. Teens can also recognize "yellow flags," behaviors or attitudes that are problematic but not necessarily hurting anyone yet. One way to step into advocacy is to speak up when you see a yellow flag. You could have a one-on-one conversation with the people involved, have a group conversation with your friends, or generally talk about these behaviors in an open setting. Helping others plan how to respond when they get into a difficult situation is a great way to prevent or lessen the effects of future violence. Teens can also get involved with an organization like Womankind or even create their own campaign or initiatives to learn about gender-based violence, as well as create innovative strategies to address its impact on youth.

8. Finally, what message would you like to share with teens who might be experiencing dating violence right now?

It can be difficult to recognize if something bad is happening. Trust your gut! And if you don't know how your gut feels, please consider talking to someone you trust for feedback. Despite how challenging this situation may feel, it is possible to get around it. There are many people (other teens and adults) who understand what teen dating violence can look like, how you might be feeling, and how tricky it can be to navigate your way out of a harmful relationship. Womankind is always available to listen and offer support.