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Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: Everyone Has the Right To a Healthy Relationship

Mary McCoy, Senior Librarian, Teen'Scape,

Love is weird. Love is wonderful. Love has as many shapes and forms and expressions as there are people to experience it.

But whatever your relationship looks like, you have the right to a safe and healthy one. You have the right to a relationship that makes you feel… well, right.

Nearly 1.5 million high school students experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year, and the number is even higher when instances of emotional abuse, sexual abuse, stalking, and digital abuse are included.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and the reason it’s so important is because teen dating abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics are shockingly common. As many as 1 in 3 teenagers will experience some type of dating abuse, so it’s especially important for teens to have the tools and resources they need to set boundaries, know the warning signs of dating abuse, communicate openly and honestly, and form healthy relationships.

I talked to Jasmine Uribe, Leadership and Engagement Manager at Break the Cycle, a local organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence and dating abuse, and Rebecca Gutierrez, a youth leader from Peace Over Violence’s Students Together Organizing Peace (STOP) Club at John Muir High School in Pasadena, about dating abuse. Here’s what they had to say about setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and getting help when you need it.

What is the biggest or most harmful myth out there about teen dating violence?

Rebecca Gutierrez, Peace Over Violence - Students Together Organizing Peace: That it’s not as talked about and not taken as seriously as other forms of domestic violence. It’s said that teens don’t go through violence because "they’re just teens."

Jasmine Uribe, Break the Cycle: A common myth that we've heard in our workshops is, that dating violence can't happen to young men. Meaning that guys can't be abused by their partners. This is not true. Dating abuse can affect anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation.  In fact, 38.6% of young men surveyed indicated that they had their first experience of intimate partner violence between the ages of 18 and 24. Male victims often feel embarrassed to speak out, often due to the fear that they will be seen as "weak" or "not manly" these beliefs and messages are unfortunately very common in our communities.

Citation: Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What do personal boundaries look like in healthy relationships?

Rebecca Gutierrez: Healthier relationships consist of both partners using respect, communication, compromise, consideration, compatibility, and commitment.

Jasmine Uribe: Boundaries in healthy relationships are discussed and respected. Having boundaries in relationships is not a bad thing. You and your partner should feel comfortable expressing what you’re cool or not cool with. Let’s use cell phones as an example. You may not want to share your passwords or cell phone with your partner, and that’s okay! You have a right to privacy, and yes, this means online, too. If you don’t want to share passwords or devices, express that as something you don’t feel comfortable doing. If your partner understands and respects your decision, that’s a sign of a healthy relationship.

Other examples for healthy boundaries include maintaining friend time during the relationship, having interests you both like but also things you may want to do on your own, and treating each other with respect, even during arguments. A healthy boundary is knowing when to take a step back to think about the way you will respond to a relationship challenge especially if it could be hurtful.

Sometimes it can feel very hard to say "no," or to stand up for ourselves. What are some ways that people can practice saying no and setting boundaries?

Rebecca Gutierrez: It’s good that before we (as teens) get into a relationship that we set boundaries for ourselves because sometimes it would be easier to set boundaries in our relationship when it's a reflection of our own boundaries, and it will make it a lot easier for us to say “no”, to anyone.

Jasmine Uribe: Setting boundaries does take practice! When things feel tough to say or express, remind yourself about why this boundary is important for you, write it down if you have to. Focus on the importance of respecting your boundary and this may make it easier to express it to your partner. Saying “no” to things may feel difficult but if saying “yes” will make you feel uncomfortable or regret a decision, then the difficult "no" outweighs the not sure "yes." Express your concerns, be honest, say “no” if you need to. Your partner may get upset, they have a right to feel certain ways, however they do not have a right to make you feel bad for your choice or to pressure you. You’re saying “no” for a reason, what is it? Stay true to your personal lines of respect and be honest. If you need more support with a tough “no” you can contact an advocate through our Loveisrespect partnership 24/7.

If you suspect that a friend or family member is the victim of dating violence, what can you do to help?

Rebecca Gutierrez: I would listen to what they have to say and because that's what they need, and when I feel like they would be in danger than I would report it, even if they told me out of confidence because I don't want to be a stand by and just wait for them to see them get hurt.

Jasmine Uribe: If you have an idea that someone you know is experiencing dating violence it’s important to consider the following:

1) Can you have an open honest conversation with your friend about your concerns? Let your friend know you care about them and are noticing things that don’t feel right to you. Ask them how it makes them feel when that happens. They may not even realize some of the warning signs. Share information you’ve learned, direct them to resources to help.

A great way to get your friends involved in raising awareness about dating violence is by taking part in February Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month Events. This could be a fun way to get the word out about healthy relationships and the warning signs of abuse without getting too personal – if you and your friend aren’t there yet.

2) Is your friend in immediate danger? If you have reason to believe your friend is in immediate danger, it’s important to get help! This may be 911 or talking to a school counselor, teacher, parent, or a trusted adult. Your friend may have told you to keep the abuse a secret and it’s a tough decision to make but connecting them to resources immediately can go a long way, especially if things are really serious.

These options are one of many and are a start to helping your friend. If your friend came to you and shared what’s going on keep that door of communication open, don’t blame, guilt or shame them. Even if you’ve told them a bunch of times to leave, understand that it’s not that easy and that blame will make them feel worse. Be supportive, don’t judge and let your friend know that you are there for them when they are ready.

What would you say to someone who is dealing with teen dating violence?

Rebecca Gutierrez: Most teens seem to forget that there are people who have been in the same situation and who are willing to listen and give out advice. We are full of pride that we don’t look for it, we think we could handle the situation, but there have been so many accounts where a teen was murdered by his or her boyfriend or girlfriend that, it just makes me wonder if they would have talked to someone, maybe they might have been saved.

They need to know it’s not their fault.

Jasmine Uribe: If you are experiencing dating violence or are unsure if your relationship is crossing to the unhealthy side, know that you are not alone and there is help available. Things are probably really confusing and you’re not sure what’s healthy or unhealthy, especially if this has been going on for a while. Any type of behavior where you feel someone is controlling or hurting you is not okay. You have a right to a healthy relationship. You deserve to be happy and safe not hurt and scared. Take a closer look at your relationship by taking a relationship quiz and get connected to resources. We’re here to help.

If you or someone you know is experiencing dating abuse, find a safe place and reach out to get help. Some places you can go include:

Break the Cycle: http://www.breakthecycle.org/

Loveisrespect.org: http://www.loveisrespect.org/for-yourself/contact-us/

Peace Over Violence: http://www.peaceoverviolence.org/emergency/

You can get involved with Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month activities at http://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/teendvmonth/

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