By: Lori Loftin, System Advocacy and Education Director
When people think about survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, they often think about adults. However, for many, dating violence and sexual harassment are part of their pre-teen and teen years. Experiencing either sexual harassment or dating violence as a teenager (or both, as the two often co-occur) can have profound and lasting impacts on physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Youth is a crucial time for identity development and exploring relationships with others. Survivors of teen dating violence and sexual harassment often grapple with feelings of shame, guilt and powerlessness. Such experiences can lead to anxiety, depression and a decline in self-esteem, affecting their overall mental health. Furthermore, victims may suffer from physical health impacts such as headaches, digestive issues, or other chronic health conditions due to the stress and trauma they endure.
To mitigate these impacts, it is essential to provide comprehensive support, counseling and education. This creates a safe environment for teens to speak out against harassment and fosters a culture of respect and empathy.
Youth face unique barriers to seeking support when experiencing teen dating violence. Research suggests teens do not often disclose that they are experiencing abuse to loved ones, and even when they do, they may not receive the support they need and deserve. According to national teen dating violence prevention resource Love is Respect, 81% of parents either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it is an issue.
Not surprisingly, schools play a key role in supporting students and helping them thrive. Administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers know that students learn best when they feel safe. School curriculums often include the building blocks of social-emotional learning, the “process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” (www.cfchildren.org/what-is-social-emotional-learning/) Youth educators and advocates from New Hope Midcoast complement this existing curriculum through school visits where they build upon the social-emotional skills in a relationship-specific context.
New Hope works with students in Pre-K through grade 12, delivering an age-appropriate curriculum, which means topics covered are targeted to students’ development based on grade and age group. Throughout all age levels, presentations are engaging and interactive, often including art-based projects. For students in elementary school, lessons cover topics like celebrating differences and being a good friend. In middle school, discussions focus on setting boundaries and peer pressure. In high school classes, lessons invite conversation about how the media shapes our understanding of relationships and how the messages we internalize about relationships are often conflicting. Lessons also create opportunities to discuss how we can use bystander intervention to help create a safer world for ourselves and for those in our communities.
With older students who are likely navigating early relationships, lessons also provide information about teen dating violence and resources that exist for teens experiencing abuse. We strive to educate youth about the tenets of safe and respectful relationships, encouraging teens and young adults to create and maintain relationships with a foundation of shared power, fairness, equality, honesty and accountability.
There has been much work done across the country in trying to define the best approaches to implement with youth in order to support them and prevent dating violence and sexual harassment. In September, New Hope Midcoast and Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine (SASSMM) invite educators, guidance counselors, school administrators, health and mental healthcare providers, parents, community members and agencies that work with youth to attend a presentation by Dr. Nan Stein, Senior Researcher at Wellesley Centers for Women. Dr. Stein will deliver her talk, Sexual Harassment and Dating Violence: A Talk for School Personnel, Parents, Students and Other Professionals Serving Youth, from 4-5:30 on Wednesday, September 27 at the Midcoast School of Technology in Rockland and on Thursday, September 28 at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Registration is through September 26 at $10 per person and is available at https://newhopemidcoast.org/speaker-series by emailing , or by calling (207) 691-5969.