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Community Voicees: The tragedy of abusive teen relationships

Deborah Weaver and Danny Ho

Those of us on the frontlines of youth violence prevention programs are devastated by the recent murder of a young Wayland woman at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.

Many of us work tirelessly every day with youth and adults teaching them how to recognize unhealthy relationships, how to advocate for themselves and what to do if they feel unsafe. Yet despite all of our efforts, there is clearly so much more that needs to be done.

Most of us cannot imagine such violence erupting between “high school sweethearts,” but what this incident underscores is the fact that intimate partner violence (IPV) exists among young people at alarming rates. According to research, 1 in 3 teens report knowing someone who has been hit, punched, kicked, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

The biggest challenge in helping teens identify and avoid abusive relationships is that most often, teens will confide in their peers before they will speak to an adult. This means our most effective line of defense against this type of behavior is teens themselves.  

Programs like the Youth Empowerment Project under the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and Girls’ LEAP Self-Defense incorporate peer leadership training into our programming. These peer leaders are an integral part of our efforts to help teens identify abusive behaviors so that they can avoid them altogether, or once involved in an abusive relationship, get help for themselves or someone else to end it safely.  

As adults and community leaders, we must do more to support these efforts by fostering a society that does not tolerate or passively condone the type of controlling, aggressive behavior that defines most abusive relationships. In LEAP’s work with teen girls we regularly hear of inappropriate or harassing behavior that girls are subjected to by peers or boys specifically, yet when they report it, the adults in most cases simply dismiss it as harmless flirting or encourage the girls to ignore it.

With their legitimate fears or concerns downplayed or ignored, the girls themselves learn to normalize behavior most of us would find appalling (most often being teased, touched or harassed sexually). How then can we expect young couples entering into their first romantic relationships to understand what the boundaries are or feel that anyone will listen to them when they do confide to being unsure or scared by certain behaviors?

The Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence regularly addresses incorrect assumptions about IPV including the ideas that “it takes two” to fight or that it is a “bad relationship” that causes the violence. Rather, it is one individual in the relationship who is responsible for the violent behavior, and it is societal factors that condone the violence. There is no way for the victim to “fix the relationship.” There is no way for the victim to avoid the argument or stop the abuse by changing “her” own behavior.   

 Our organizations, plus many others, work on the IPV issue on a daily basis. The information and tools are there. What we need to do now as adults, parents and community leaders is translate our concerns into action. We must learn to recognize the signs of IPV ourselves, talk with the youth in our lives candidly about healthy and unhealthy relationships, combat the societal inequalities like sexism that can normalize inappropriate behaviors and support organizations that provide information and resources to teens to keep them safe. 

Deborah Weaver
Executive Director and Founder
Girls’ LEAP Self-Defense

Danny Ho
Youth Education Coordinator
Asian Task Force Against Domestic
Violence