As children enter adolescence, their minds and bodies are rapidly changing. Adolescence marks the beginning of more complex relationships, including romantic relationships, as hormones begin to rage and social influences to begin dating strengthen.
Because teens are greatly influenced by the role models at home and in their communities, it comes as no surprise that we see teens exposed to violence at home or in their communities express similar behavior in their own dating relationships.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently released research on current teen dating violence trends, finding "risky social environment was the strongest correlate of physical and emotional dating violence victimization and perpetration within a romantic relationship." Teens exposed to violence in their community or family environments are more likely to become involved in dating violence, because they often mirror the behavior they see. Home environments that consistently use violence or aggression to resolve problems or to establish power or control set a standard for the children to follow in those environments.
Teens without healthy role models to establish positive norms about dating relationship behavior are ill equipped to handle the complex emotions that stem from these new relationships. Teens who learn to identify unhealthy relationship qualities are much less likely to perpetuate negative norms they might have learned in their communities or homes.
Development of social competency at an early age to promote pro-social bonding equips teens to apply what they have learned about healthy relationship norms to their own relationships. Positive peer influence promotes healthy norms as well. According to NIJ, "Programs that help develop healthy peer relationships should begin early in adolescence, when youth are first learning to establish more autonomous and meaningful peer relationships. Youth can learn and practice with peers many of the positive qualities that are important in healthy romantic relationships."
Often, teens simply don't know yet the boundaries of acceptable behavior. As teens learn to differentiate positive and negative relationship qualities, they learn how to set appropriate boundaries. SEL activities that simulate real-life scenarios offer teens opportunities to practice handling a spectrum of relationship possibilities. Essential social and emotional skill development, such as learning to identify and manage emotions, as well as making responsible decisions, lays a strong foundation for lifelong healthy relationship management. Simple education of the acceptable "do's" and the unacceptable "don'ts" can go a long way to promoting healthy relationships.
Research may show that teen violence does in fact occur, but we can do our part to steer teens toward healthier relationships. By equipping teens with strong social-emotional skills sets, and the knowledge they need to observe appropriate boundaries and discern unhealthy from healthy relationship qualities, we prepare teens to make healthy choices as they navigate relationships from adolescence into adulthood.