Breaking the Silence on Teen Dating Violence
In April 2017, Alexandra House partnered with the Rachel Circle at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka bringing Breaking the Silence on Teen Dating Violence to teens and parents. This event gave families a place to start conversations about healthy relationships. Rachel Circle chairperson, Terri Refshaw, talked about the goals of the event saying, “we really wanted to connect the parents and the kids and get them talking the same language and getting them to understand each other…it is a topic that parents and kids really don’t know how to talk about.”
Teen dating violence — also called intimate relationship violence or intimate partner violence among adolescents or adolescent relationship abuse — includes physical, psychological or sexual abuse; harassment; or stalking of any person ages 12 to 18 in the context of a past or present romantic or consensual relationship. It is a major issue affecting teens across the country and in our community. In 2013, the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that approximately 1 in 10 teens reported being hit or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend at least once in the previous year. In our own community, Alexandra House provides advocacy to approximately 800 high-school students each year who have experienced sexual violence, dating violence, or violence in their family.
This event, attended by over 150 teens and parents, was inspired by Refshaw’s experience helping a close friend who was struggling to support her daughter after dating violence in her early 20s. This friend and her husband were blindsided by the abuse and asked Refshaw to help their family navigate the complex systems their daughter encounter. As the family sorted out the logistics, the parents were left wondering what they could have done to identify the violence earlier or prevent it before it began. Refshaw brought this situation to the Rachel Circle and after some discussion the group was moved to action. One Circle member and Alexandra House staff member, Cathy Green, suggested that the group collaborate with the Alexandra House Youth Services department. Zion’s Pastor for Children, Youth and Family, Mike Rueckert, offered to integrate dating violence prevention into the church’s confirmation program. Refshaw says “it just kind of blossomed from there.”
Four full-time staff in the Alexandra House Youth Services department coordinate weekly prevention and intervention programs in six Anoka Countyschool districts as well as at Lino Lakes Juvenile Corrections Facilities. In addition, staff support a Youth Advisory Council comprised of students from across the county who plan and facilitate teen dating violence awareness activities in their schools and communities. As staff developed the training materials for the confirmation classes at Zion, they asked Youth Advisory Council members what they wished parents and other adults understood about dating violence. First and foremost, Council members said they wished that parents knew how common relationship violence is. If parents have concerns about a particular relationship, the council members recommended asking the child’s friends about the relationship.
During the first part of the evening, Alexandra House staff and a Youth Advisory Council member met with parents to give them information and answer questions. Pastor for Spiritual Care Sue Wallager, a parent herself, joined in by sharing a theological perspective on relationship violence and setting the tone for the evening. Dawn Rutt, Alexandra House Youth Services Coordinator, explained that “you could see the lightbulbs going off” as parents began to see the importance of talking openly with their child about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships and letting their child know that the family would be supportive if abuse happened.
As parents were joined by their teens, the group was split into smaller groups for thought-provoking conversations about the dynamics of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships. Though the church has long had a commitment to being a welcoming and safe place for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, Refshaw said that dating violence is “a hard topic… not a topic that people want to go listen to so we initially had some parents that were a little hesitant” but, in the end, “they learned a lot.” Refshaw reported that this event was all about “teaching our children to treat each other well and be respectful and caring and loving” and “helping kids get though the maturing process,” and giving parents some tools “so they can really help their kids have healthy relationships.” Wrapping up the evening, Pastor Rueckert led the intergenerational group in prayer, sharing a vision of a world without relationship violence and offering pastoral support for anyone struggling with unhealthy relationships.
Rachel Circle’s next big project is the Discovering Peace: Transforming our Lives through Stories Conference which will be held at Zion on Friday evening October 13 and all day, Saturday, October 14, 2017. This event is open to the public and will feature internationally acclaimed photographer John Noltner’s exhibit “A Peace of My Mind” as well as storytellers from across the community.