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Keeping youth safe: Teen dating violence and the role of youth workers

By Sarah Odendahl

Teen couple seated closely, facing each other holding hands
In a few short days, October will be here. October brings notable holidays like Halloween and Indigenous People’s Day, and it is also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, takes many forms. One of those forms is what’s known as dating violence. A 2019 CDC survey showed that 1 in 12 U.S. high school students who had dated in the previous 12 months had experienced physical and/or sexual dating violence. The CDC states that “teen dating violence profoundly impacts lifelong health, opportunity, and wellbeing.”

Can youth workers have an impact on teen dating violence? Research suggests yes. A 2022 study that spanned 25 New England high schools showed that youth who underestimated school staff’s response to teen dating violence had less intention to personally intervene in situations of dating violence. The same group reported higher belief in rape myths and higher denial of responsibility for dating violence situations. Using their findings combined with a base of other research, the study finds “norms about bystander behavior in an environment impact adolescents’ own intended bystander behavior.”

We know from the Weikart Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) that creating a physically and emotionally safe environment is a critical component of high quality youth programs.  For those working with teens and pre-teens, creating a norm of safety from dating violence is included in this safety.

How can youth workers help create a norm against dating violence?

  • Educate yourself - Learn about the different types of behavior that constitute dating violence, including digital abuse and stalking
  • Intervene - Also known as “reactive bystander behavior,” this could include removing a youth from a violent situation or helping a youth report violence they’ve experienced
  • Speak up - “Proactive bystander behaviors” are actions that work to prevent dating violence before it starts.  This could include creating safety rules in your space, directly telling youth you will support them if they experience dating violence, or educating youth about what dating violence is. 
  • Consider a training - The CDC has developed a violence prevention program called Dating Matters that engages youth, parents, educators, and communities to prevent teen dating violence. has several other curricula and programs to help you find what works best for your organization.
  • Engage colleagues in conversation - How would your organization respond if a youth was a victim or perpetrator of dating violence?  How would you ensure safety for participants?

Teen dating violence can be a scary topic to approach. “The good news is violence is preventable, and we can all help young people grow up violence-free” ( 

What preventative step will you commit to in beginning this work, or what tips can you offer to others who are new to prevention work?  Share with us in the comment section.

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

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