The power of peers is an important element of efforts to prevent teen dating violence

New publication stresses that educational programs may be most effective when they address the influence of teens’ peers.

Picture yourself when you were in middle school or high school. Imagine you’re walking through the hallway between classes when you notice a friend being slammed against a locker by the person she or he is dating – and it’s not the first time you’ve seen this kind of abusive behavior happen. What do you imagine you might do after having witnessed this situation? If this is an all-too-real scenario from your experiences at that age, did you feel well-prepared to help your friend cope with what was going on?

Recent studies have shown that far too many young people are involved in unhealthy and abusive dating relationships, and researchers with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) are calling for more focus on the roles of adolescents’ peer networks in these situations. The recently released publication titled, Teen Dating Violence: How Peers Can Affect Risk and Protective Factors examines a variety of research findings about the potential of peers in influencing friends’ dating experiences, particularly their willingness to enter and leave romantic relationships that are abusive.

Because teens who experience physical, emotional or sexual violence in one dating relationship are at significant risk for experiencing abuse in another relationship, the publication stresses the importance of peers as “first responders” to these initial experiences with violence and abuse. Many studies have shown that teens who are experiencing dating abuse often don’t seek help from anyone after it has occurred – and those who do seek help most frequently turn to friends instead of sources such as parents, teachers, law enforcement or social services. The publication also highlighted the findings of preliminary research about teens who sought legal protection from their abusers by obtaining protection or restraining orders. While these decisions were most commonly affected by the extent of the abuse and guidance from caring adults, teens who took these steps also expressed significant concern about how their peers would view their actions.

Just as young people can be supportive allies to peers who are targeted by hurtful bullying behaviors, peers’ roles as allies are also an important aspect of addressing teen dating violence – and the NIJ publication stresses that programs are likely to be most effective if they consider this potential. Educational programs can help teens identify aspects of healthy romantic relationships and compare them to relationships that involve behaviors that are physically, emotionally or sexually abusive. Programs can also help young people explore specific ways that they can support someone involved with a violent relationship, including learning about the kinds of resources available to help both the person who is experiencing the abuse and the person who is carrying out these negative behaviors. Promising programs such as Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries can be used within schools and other youth settings to help middle school and high school-aged youth explore issues related to preventing dating violence, building healthy relationships and developing strategies for helping friends who are dealing with abuse.

Michigan State University Extension provides programs and opportunities for adults to help young people learn more about issues including dating violence, bullying and harassment. For example, the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative is designed to help young people and adults work together to prevent issues of bullying – including knowing differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. The initiative includes the comprehensive Be SAFE curriculum, which is designed for use in both school and out-of-school settings.

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