Empowering Teens to End Dating Violence

03/02/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

As an emergency physician and a mother of a 6-year-old daughter, I recognize how essential it is to talk about the need for healthy relationships early and to model them at home. Talking about respect in ways she understands now will make it easier to discuss dating violence when the time comes. Although this may seem early to start thinking about this, it's not.

Teen dating violence is a widespread problem. Findings from a CDC survey of high school students analyzed in today's JAMA Pediatrics, show one in 5 females and one in 10 males experienced teen dating violence in the year prior to the survey. This survey's first national estimates of sexual teen dating violence underscore that females are disproportionately affected. The consequences can be both immediate and long term: health concerns like binge drinking and suicide are significantly higher for teens who experienced both physical and sexual violence.

We can prevent teen dating violence by intervening early, before it ever happens. Dating violence and its consequences can start prior to high school. Violence between partners is common among high-risk, urban middle school students, according to new findings on teen dating violence in the Journal of Adolescent Health. And those who perpetrate dating violence are likely to perpetrate other forms of violence like bullying.

Approaches that prevent teen dating violence are urgently needed before children start dating yet when many are already thinking and talking about relationships. These strategies must build skills for safe relationships, address associated risks and consider the needs of all youth regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. But what does comprehensive and effective prevention look like? How can public health departments and organizations build the capacity needed for sustainable change and impact?

Communities across the country are finding the answers and what works in promoting healthy relationships.

CDC's Dating Matters initiative is putting in place evidence-based strategies for youth in Baltimore, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale and Oakland. Together, health departments and middle schools are making strides in guiding parents and educators to proactively talk about strong relationships with 11- to 14-year-olds. These efforts do more than empower youth with tips for building safe relationships and recognizing warning signs; they also nurture bonds between children and parents and between parents and the community they live in.

As Aimee Wood, Broward County Public Schools Prevention Specialist and Dating Matters participant, said, "We're really starting to raise a generation who view violence as not OK and not normal. So you have entire generations, entire communities, that are starting to reap the benefits of having children, young adults and adults who don't choose to behave in violent manners."

Creating stronger bonds and safer communities is not just for violence prevention specialists. Everyone, everywhere, can help prevent dating violence and its consequences.

Educators, youth leaders and anyone working to improve the well-being of youth and families can get involved. Take the Dating Matters training and learn how to better communicate with teens about dating and what puts them at risk, such as a partner lying, acting jealous, put downs or destroying belongings.

Parents can model healthy behaviors. When we call attention to ways that we listen, communicate honestly, make mutual decisions, agree to disagree and treat a partner as an equal, children are given examples to learn from and live by.

We can all start the conversation about healthy and unhealthy relationships now. Our decision to have that talk today may drive the relationship decisions our daughters and sons make for years to come.