Healthy Me, Healthy We: Preventing Dating Violence

We know the statistics: Based on the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, among high school students who dated or went out with someone, about 1 in 8 girls and 1 in 13 boys reported that they experienced physical dating violence during the 12 months before the survey. Additionally, about 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 18 boys reported that they experienced sexual dating violence. As for adults 18 and older, the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that more than 1 in 5 women and nearly 1 in 7 men who have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner first experienced some form of intimate partner violence when they were between 11 and 17 years old. Alesha Istvan

As a society, we need to focus on dating violence prevention. We need to infuse our world with positive, affirming messages and reduce the negative messages that young people hear every day. We want to remind young people that they are good enough, they deserve to spend their time and energy as they wish, and they are always worthy of love that builds them up. That’s why we worked with young people to come up with the theme for this year’s Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. They chose Healthy Me, Healthy We, because it’s a theme that speaks to the importance of realizing how amazing each person is as an individual.

Parents are key to sharing this message with their children. Parents have a huge influence on how young people come to feel about themselves and understand healthy relationships. However, many parents may not think or know that dating abuse is a significant problem. Because of this, we need to incorporate parents and other influential adults into dating abuse prevention to make a lasting impact.

Of course, this picture is complex. As a mother to a headstrong eight-year-old, I have learned that young people have their own minds. They don’t necessarily want to listen to their parents, but they do observe us and internalize the messages we send them.

One Saturday morning, my son asked me about dating violence and abuse. Although I work in this field, I was so nervous that I would say something stupid. I carefully started to explain, “Dating abuse is when a boyfriend or girlfriend hurts the other person in the relationship a lot.” He quickly responded, “That would never happen to me.” Taken aback, I took another approach. I told him that I hoped he remembered that when he got older. I said, “You are valuable and strong. You are smart and loved. Anyone who you are dating will also have wonderful qualities. You should remind them of that and never make them feel like they are not important. Just like you learn to be nice to your friends, everyone deserves respect and love.” He ran off to watch TV.

This experience reminded me that these conversations are not easy for any parent, and we could all use a few tips for when they come up. Here are three quick tips to help you support the children and teens in your life:

  1. Take them seriously and listen. Remember that young people are experts in their own lives. Their experiences with building and ending relationships are real, and they will guide you to what they need if you slow down and listen.
  2. Model healthy self-love and healthy relationships. Remember that the best way to teach and nurture young people is to act in the way you want them to act. That means you are honest: Let them know relationships can be hard, but they can also be a lot of fun. Let them see you practice self-care and maintain your boundaries. Let them see you show compassion and empathy toward others and yourself. They are watching and learning from what you do — maybe even more than from what you say.
  3. Remind them of their worth, even when (especially when) they make mistakes. Make sure to remind your child that they are still worthy of love, even when they are not being the best versions of themselves. It is important to teach them that actions have consequences AND that you care for them. Remind them that even after they make a mistake, they can work to be better and make things right. 

Parenting is complicated, and there are lots of times we fall short, but we must continue to build our children up. We need to take their experiences seriously, remind them of their worth and the worth of others, model healthy behaviors, and love them unconditionally. If we do this, we can help them practice self-love and build healthy relationships — the ultimate prevention against abuse.

Learn more about the power behind our Healthy Me, Healthy We message.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.