One of the primary reasons that Stand Up Colorado uses the term “relationship violence” instead of “domestic violence” is due to the stereotypes associated with the word “domestic”. This often makes us think of abuse that occurs in someone’s home where two people live together. Unlike most portrayals in pop culture, however, abuse doesn’t just occur among married couples or in adult relationships.
In fact, relationship violence can begin at the same time as we begin to date – high school and college. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that people experience the highest rate of relationship violence between the ages of 16-24.1
“The stats alone speak to the urgency of starting conversations about relationship violence at a young age,” said Michelle Bryan, an outreach advocate for The Family Tree – a local nonprofit working to break the generational cycles of child abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.
If we are going to create a future free from relationship violence in Colorado, that must include the abuse that occurs in teen and young-adult relationships. This quest begins with acknowledging that it is a problem amongst youth, breaking the silence that surrounds it and understanding what individuals and communities can do to address it.
It’s Not OK to Say “They’re Too Young”
According to the CDC, more than 1 in 10 high school students experience physical relationship violence on an annual basis.2 This equates to more than 1.4 million teenagers in high school experiencing physical abuse from a dating partner each year 3 – more than the entire populations of Denver and Colorado Springs combined. Yet, less than 1 in 5 parents see relationship violence as an issue.4
“I think that kids in high school don’t discuss relationship violence because they are scared,” said Micaela Shevell, a sophomore at Otero Junior College from Aurora. “It’s hard to find someone you trust enough to help you sometimes.”
The numbers only accelerate after graduation when many move on to further their education. Knowledge Networks’ survey of college students found that more than 1 in 3 had experienced relationship violence – 57 percent of which said the abuse had occurred in college.5 These individuals often find themselves in a similar position as those who experienced it in high school – not knowing who to turn to.
“Since I’ve been in college, I don’t think it’s become any easier for people to report their issues,” Shevell said. “You often hear about reports being made and nothing being done about it.”
Shrouded in Silence
Teen dating violence statistics are likely surprising to most of us in the general public due to the silence and stigma that surrounds this issue for youth. A survey from Teenage Research Unlimited found that 1 in 3 teenagers that experience relationship violence never tell anyone about it6 – and it’s not just teenagers that aren’t discussing it.
“It seems that we are often not having conversations about relationship violence as a community in general,” Bryan said. “I think students don’t talk about it for the same reasons that the general community isn’t.”
A survey from The Allstate Foundation also highlighted that over half of American parents admit that they never talked with their teenage child about relationship violence. This is echoed in the same report by the more than 1 in 3 Millennials – those born between 1980-1995 – who said their parents never talked to them about it.7
“Parents tend not to discuss abusive relationships with their teens because many parents aren’t aware of the commonly high rates of abusive dynamics in teen relationships,” said Derek McCoy, the Director of Violence Prevention Initiatives at Project PAVE. “Most parents have not had any quality training around what makes a relationship healthy versus abusive so even if they want to discuss this with their teens, it’s often a topic that they don’t know how to broach in a way that will have the impact they’re looking for.”
Adding to the stigma is our natural inclination to believe it would never happen in our community or with people we know. For the same reason adults in Colorado recognize that relationship violence impacts many people but not in their neighborhood 8, college students see it as a problem but not one for their campus. Despite more than half of them knowing someone who experienced relationship violence, less than 1 in 10 viewed it as a serious issue on their campus.5
What We Can Do
So how do we create a future free from relationship violence in our high schools and colleges? The strategy is a multi-faceted approach that emphasizes education, primary prevention and providing support to those engaging in dating violence so that they can change their abusive behaviors, beginning to live happier and healthier lives before reaching adulthood.
“Early intervention addressing relationship abuse with youth is key for creating healthy communities and diverting at-risk youth from abusive pathways that involve the legal system,” said Jesse Hansen, Program Coordinator for the Colorado Domestic Violence Offender Management Board.
According to the American Bar Association, a majority of violent behavior begins between the ages of 12-189 – meaning we can’t wait until they are in college before having these conversations. That is why domestic violence organizations across the state and primary prevention programs operated by organizations like Stand Up Colorado partners Project PAVE and The Family Tree are working to promote healthy relationships in schools.
“Project PAVE is doing work to empower young people to establish healthy standards and boundaries in their dating relationships and friendships,” McCoy said, “as well as work to support youth and families impacted negatively by relationship violence. The cycle of violence is one that impacts us all in one way or another, so PAVE is adamant about spreading knowledge far and wide about healthy versus abusive relational dynamics with a goal of ending the cycle.”
“Our program at The Family Tree facilitates healthy relationship workshops with young people in schools,” Bryan said. “We operate from a place of shared power with students, building trust so that they have the freedom to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences related to relationships.”
Stand Up Colorado is also working to address the gaps in services for youth engaging in teen dating violence. A multidisciplinary committee has launched a first-of-its-kind initiative seeking to create access and services for youth using abusive behaviors in relationships.
“The goal of this work group is to create a statewide resource for youth who can access services from trained experts on relationship violence in order to promote victim and community safety,” Hansen said.
“By formulating guidelines for best practices in treatment for youth, we hope to encourage additional treatment providers to provide these needed services,” said Ellen Stein Wallace, Campaign Manager for Stand Up Colorado.
If you or someone you know is using abusive behaviors in their relationship, it is OK to ask for help. Reach out to the Stand Up Colorado Helpline where our Colorado-based, trained professionals are waiting to answer questions and connect you with support resources in your area. Call 885.9StandUp (855-978-2638) or visit our website to chat with them online.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States – 2010 (2014).
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12 – United States and Selected Sites, 2015 (2016).
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States – 2010 (2014).
4 American Bar Association. Teen Dating Violence: Prevention Recommendations (2006).
5 Knowledge Networks. 2011 College Dating Violence and Abuse Poll (2011).
6 Teenage Research Unlimited. Omnibuzz Topline Findings – Teen Relationship Abuse Research (2005).
7 The Allstate Foundation. The Allstate Foundation Silent Weapon: Domestic Violence and Financial Abuse Survey (2014).
8 Center for Policy Research. Prevention Relationship Violence Through Community Change (2018).
9 American Bar Association. The Pathways to Youth Violence: How Child Mistreatment and Other Risk Factors Lead Children to Chronically Aggressive Behavior (2000).