Talking to your Teen about Intimate Partner Violence

By Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, Chief, Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and Associate Professor in Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

MILLER_ELIZABETHAs video footage and news reports of football players assaulting their female partners and children has prompted a national conversation about intimate partner violence (IPV), the role of sports, and what we can do turn the tide on violence against women. Broad community-level responses are needed that engage youth, parents, schools, faith-based organizations, and youth-serving agencies to shift social norms that regard violence against women and girls as acceptable and expected, to recognize what constitutes abusive behavior, and to raise up healthy and positive examples of intimate relationships. Parents are in an ideal position to help prevent such violence by talking to their children about respect and healthy relationships.

First, let’s talk to our sons about their role in stopping violence against women. For far too long, IPV has been regarded as a women’s issue. Violence prevention research is increasingly showing that attitudes that condone violence against women contribute to sexual and domestic violence.  Efforts to change those attitudes are underway.

On Sept. 11, over 200 men gathered in Pittsburgh to discuss how men can be involved in stopping violence against women. Led by violence prevention advocate Tony Porter, the presentations focused on rethinking masculinity, changing norms that condone violence against women, and ensuring that men are actively speaking out against such violence.  Many of our area schools and community agencies are now engaged in “Coaching Boys into Men (CBIM),” a program developed by Futures Without Violence, available at www.coachescorner.org, that guides coaches to talk to their male adolescent athletes about stopping violence against women and girls.

The program has weekly scripts and discussion points for coaches to share with their athletes about expectations for respectful behaviors toward women and girls. My research team led a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that the program increases high school male athletes’ likelihood of intervening when they witness disrespectful and harmful behaviors among their peers. One year later, athletes who took part in the program reported lower rates of abuse perpetration than the athletes who did not. In feedback from high school coaches and athletes, most recommended starting this program in the middle school years, when socialization around interactions with girls is just beginning. The CDC recently funded us to conduct a study of CBIM with 6th– to 8th-grade male athletes with the goal of reducing sexual harassment, bullying, and dating abuse.

Second, we need to talk to our children about respectful behaviors and what to expect from their peers. One of the most important strategies to reduce bullying and sexual violence is to increase the likelihood that individuals speak up and stand up against disrespectful and harmful behaviors they see among their peers. Yet as we know from tragic events such as unfolded in Steubenville, Ohio, where youth stood by and watched as an adolescent girl was being assaulted sexually, we need to focus on increasing youth skills in interrupting and stopping harmful behaviors.  The more youth who speak up, the easier it becomes for youth to stand up together to create healthier and safer environments for themselves. We also need to speak with our adolescent children about what they deserve in relationships and that affirmative consent is crucial for any intimate relationship. Simply put, not only “No Means No,” but also that not saying no does not imply consent. This is the approach that we are taking on college campuses across the nation to reduce the risk for sexual assault on campus as well.

In summary, parents are critical support for their children as they transition to adulthood and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. The more we talk to them about respect, consent, and their responsibility in helping to keep their peers safe, the more we empower them to envision a world in which video footage of brutal violence against women and children is a thing of the past.

Please check out www.startstrong.futureswithoutviolence.org for some tips on talking to your children about healthy and respectful relationships. For teens, a great resource, with a 24/7 chat feature, is www.loveisrespect.org.

For more information and to make an appointment at one of the adolescent medicine locations, please visit www.chp.edu/adolescent.