Teen dating happens more than you can imagine. In a 2015 study, the majority of teen dating violence victims told no one about the abuse—fewer than 22% told a friend, and only 5% told an adult. The reasons that adolescents are hesitant to tell adults are varied. They often fear nobody will believe them or that they will be blamed for the problem. Many fear their abuser will try to get back at them and hurt them more. The cycle of abuse fuels feelings of shame and vulnerability and further isolates victims from supportive relationships.
Youth workers can be an ally in ending this harmful cycle by reaching out to students who may be struggling in an abusive relationship. When youth workers respond to incidents of dating violence they communicate to students that the church is a safe place where violence is not tolerated and their dignity is valued.
Dating violence, like any form of abuse, is complicated. Being courageous enough to lean into a messy situation can start to make a student victim feel they are not alone. One conversation will not “fix” the problem but it can be a catalyst for healing. Also, a talk with you could empower him or her to speak openly about the problem and seek the help they need.
Knowing how to talk to youth about intimate partner violence is a challenge. Not everyone feels capable or competent to have these conversations. What follows is a process to help you speak effectively with students about dating violence. You will need to know the best way to approach a student who may be at risk, how to honestly and directly state your concern, and how best to respond to what they tell you.
Cultivate Security—Put the student at ease by creating a safe environment. Find a safe space for you to talk to the student. This can go a long way towards getting a student to open up about an abusive relationship. Confidentiality and gentleness are foundations of a secure and safe setting.
- Explain Limits of Confidentiality—This is a sensitive conversation that should take place between you and the student but, if harm is occurring to the student, you may be required to report the abuse. Check your church policies and state laws. Most state laws include lay clergy as mandated reporters. Don’t make promises of secrecy to the student. Assure them you will always act on their behalf, that you are in this for the long haul, and if you should have to report information you will do so as a partner with the student and will allow them the opportunity to advocate for him or herself.
- Don’t Overreact—Invite honest discussion using a friendly, calm tone when you speak. Watch your posture. Your body language can cause a scared student to withdraw and withhold information. Smile often and speak tenderly. Also, don’t sit behind a desk or across a table, sit beside or in front of.
Get Your Hands Dirty and Dig In—Do not be afraid to be direct but kind. This kind of approach conveys compassion and seriousness. Speak directly and warmly. Let the student know that you take both his or her overall wellbeing and the issue of dating abuse seriously. Doing this expresses trust that will be necessary to foster an honest, constructive dialogue. An effective inquiry is kind, direct, brief, and has 3 parts:
- Specific and clear portrayal of what you saw. Note time and place: “Jennifer, yesterday when you were walking down the hall to Sunday School I noticed that Geoffrey grabbed you by the arm.”
- Show the association of that act with the definition of abuse: “When one person in a relationship hurts their partner or tries to make them feel afraid, it’s called abuse, and it’s never ok.”
- Express your concern and then invite them to share more about the relationship/event: “I’m concerned that you are not safe in this relationship. Would you like to talk about it?”
Be present and listen well. You may be tempted to want to jump in a fix the problem immediately but that can feel overwhelming to a scared teenager. Also, the fear that adults don’t really want to listen to kids can be directly challenged by actively listening to their story, even if you don’t think they are being honest with you. Make good eye contact, don’t interrupt, and ask for clarification when needed.
Respond with Appropriate Empathy and Validation—Once the student has finished sharing, it is essential to validate what they share with you and be empathetic in your response. This to happen whether or not the student divulges abuse.
If the student does not reveal abuse:
“Thank you. Your wellbeing and safety is very important to me. If you ever feel unsafe, I’m here for you.”
Fight the urge to push, if there is abuse, the student must choose how, who, and when to talk about it. Your job is to validate, convey empathy, and keep the door open.
If the student does reveal abuse:
Be Supportive: Let the student know you support them (even if you don’t believe them).
“I am here for you in this.”
Be Empathetic: Let the student know you understand their feelings, fears, and insecurities about what will happen next.
“The abuse you have suffered is not your fault”
“You are not alone”
Refer and Report—Brainstorm with the student options for moving forward. Keep in mind mandatory reporting concerns while allowing the student a measure of self-determination. Help them problem-solve who they tell next, how they should report, and if they need extra help, such as a counselor or law enforcement support. Develop a plan for bringing the student’s parents into the discussion. Direct the student towards community resources.
This process will likely be a journey for the victim, the abuser, both families, siblings, and friends, as well as you and your volunteers. Knowing your limitations is important in navigating a crisis well. It is possible to work through an experience such as this but tough conversations will need to be had, boundaries will need to be set, and policies will need to be developed to create a responsive and safe environment for students who risk being vulnerable when intimate partner violence occurs.