Tackling Teen Dating Violence Before it Begins

Oct 30, 2012, 12:51 AM

Debbie Lee Debbie Lee, Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships

Debbie Lee, senior vice president at Futures Without Violence and deputy director of Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships’ national program office, will speak Tuesday, October 30 about lessons learned from the Start Strong initiative at an APHA session on preventing teen dating violence.

Start Strong is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in collaboration with Futures Without Violence. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation have invested in 11 communities across the country to identify and evaluate the most promising pathways to stop dating violence and abuse before it starts. This initiative uses a comprehensive community health model to prevent teen dating violence and promote the development of healthy relationships among 11 to 14 year olds.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Debbie Lee before her APHA session to find out more about the unique approach Start Strong is taking to building healthy relationships skills in youth and tackling teen dating violence before it begins.

NewPublicHealth: First tell us a bit more about the comprehensive approach that Start Strong uses.

Debbie Lee: Start Strong uses a multifaceted approach to promote healthy relationship behaviors among young adolescents in order to stop relationship violence before it starts. Its four key components include: educating and engaging youth in and out of school; engaging the people that influence teens; addressing policy change in schools and environmental factors that affect adolescent development; and then implementing communications and social marketing strategies to create and reinforce positive social norms.

NPH: This year’s theme at APHA is “Prevention and Wellness Across the Lifespan.” How does Start Strong fit into this theme?

Debbie Lee: Start Strong gives young people a healthier start in life by teaching them the skills it takes to have healthy relationships and prevent teen dating violence and abuse before it starts. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation envisioned their work in stopping domestic violence, they prioritized prevention from the start.

We recognized that healthy relationships needed to be discussed at a much younger age when young people start to think about dating or are just beginning to date. Multiple studies have found that adolescents on average reported initiating dating activities around age 11. Middle school is the time when young people are learning about relationships and modeling behaviors from what they observe at home and in school and what they see in popular culture. Advances in the science of brain development also indicate it is a period of social emotional learning and empathy maturity.

Taking this prevention approach early on has benefits across the lifespan. By focusing on middle school students now, we’re preventing violence and promoting healthy relationships for an entire generation of adults in the future.

NPH: What is the focus of your presentation in the panel?

Debbie Lee: We’re very much focused on sharing what we’ve learned. Since we implemented the initiative in a diverse set of communities with vulnerable populations—from urban to rural and conservative to much more open—the breadth of lessons and successes we have to share is quite incredible. 

We’ll give a broad perspective on what it takes to implement our community health model in so many different places with a wide array of local organizations serving as leaders and partners. 

In addition, we’ll highlight some of the most surprising lessons we learned. For example, we tried a lot of interesting things within the social marketing and communications aspects of our work to change social norms. We also learned that adults aren’t the only ones who can serve as influencers; near-to-peer mentors (older siblings and high school students in this case) can be very effective, too. They’re very in touch with the technology and popular culture trends that are important to incorporate into any message that’s going to speak effectively to kids. In other words, they helped us really meet kids where they’re at.

Finally, we’ll also present the baseline data we’ve collected on middle school youth.

NPH: Given that Start Strong was in so many communities with many partners, what have you learned to be the most important factors in the success of cross-sector partnerships? 

Debbie Lee: Beyond the basic need for communication and mutual investment that is crucial in any partnership, we’ve learned a few things.

First, schools are incredibly powerful as a central partner, especially in work involving middle-school-aged youth. They’re important because school is not only where kids physically spend most of their time, but also socially and emotionally, it’s where they learn and grow. It’s where new peer and popular culture influences come into play; and, jealousy, anger, and pressure to conform are felt in more powerful and personal ways. And, it’s where kids interact with influential adult mentors, from nurses to principals. Finally, middle schools can also be a way to reach parents at a time when kids are still listening to them and want to involve them in important issues.

Second, we learned how important it was to try to reach the wide variety of mentors for kids and the myriad environments where kids spend time. The work was strengthened when kids received messages and participated in many different kinds of activities in many environments (both in and out of school), and involving many kinds of partners, from older teens to parents and coaches.

Third, it’s important not to shy away from experimentation and creativity, especially in working with youth. It took each community time and effort to build relevant messages and programs. The most successful efforts were created through meaningful partnerships between youth and adults. Creating those partnerships included first training youth on the issue, then working with them to come up with youth-driven or youth-informed activities and messages and means for delivering them, which often integrated popular culture.  

And finally, it’s crucial to plan early for building pathways to long-term sustainability into the work. Policy and systems change is one way to achieve sustainable programs. Integrating programming into school curriculum and existing after-school programs is another way.

NPH: What aspects of Start Strong do you want to share with the public health community?

Debbie Lee: I’m glad that so many in the public health community are already advocates for the importance of prevention in ensuring that the next generation has the skills for building healthier lives. But, I’d like to really emphasize the importance of healthy relationship promotion and teen dating violence prevention in particular as a public health issue and give it the attention it deserves.

Public health officials and others have such strong networks and relationships with key youth influencers. Partnerships between public health practitioners, health care providers, school personnel, school health clinics, after-school and youth development programs and domestic and sexual violence preventionists are needed to engage youth on these issues in authentic ways. Any number of these partners can be great champions and surrogates for this model and this work.

I think the public health community will be very interested in the lessons this 11-site learning community has gleaned from implementing such a multifaceted program with such a diverse array of partners. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.