4 Ways to Prevent Violence By Promoting Healthy Relationships During Childhood

kids posing near a tree in the park

It’s a common scenario among elementary school classrooms and playgrounds. A little boy hits or pushes a female classmate, who is told that he “probably did it because he likes you.” The response is often meant as a harmless way to calm children down after the event, but it can establish and reinforce the belief that hitting is an acceptable form of love, says Kole Wyckhuys, prevention education program director at HAVEN in Pontiac, Michigan.

The agency, which works with victims of domestic and sexual violence countywide, began visiting elementary school classes about 25 years ago to introduce students to age-appropriate messages about respecting their bodies. Delivering violence prevention messages early on can lay the foundation for healthy dating relationships, Wyckhuys says, and give children a lifelong sense of ownership over their bodies and emotions.

“The sooner the message [about healthy relationships] comes, the better. It’s just a matter of age appropriateness,” Wyckhuys says. “The more key messages come as early as possible, the more kids are able to practice skills that they are more likely to use [in the future].”

[Read about what parents and caregivers can do to help youth avoid or recover from violence.]

In Boulder County, Colorado, the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) provides eight days of social and emotional wellness activities to help elementary school students better relate to others by understanding their emotions. The curriculum engages children in “compassionate dialogue” so they can learn a range of feelings beyond happy and sad and recognize that emotions don’t have to be labeled as “good or bad,” says Violence Prevention Educator Anand Vadehra.

Participants also discuss what it feels like to hold their emotions inside, Vadehra says, and create lists and drawings that show what they like to do when they feel a certain way. These activities help children create a sense of responsibility to themselves, he adds, that extends to their relationships with others.

Additionally, the SPAN curriculum introduces children to the idea of interdependence by showing how different people rely upon one another. In one activity, students look at their desks and think about all the people who may have been involved creating them and getting them to their classroom. Making these connections helps children relate to others more respectfully, Vadehra says, and to understand the impact their words and actions can have on others.

[Read about a program preventing dating violence in minority youth.]

Integrating Violence Prevention Outside the Classroom

Although HAVEN and SPAN typically visit elementary schools, Wyckhuys and Vadehra both stress the importance of violence prevention in other community programs. Here are four of their suggestions for incorporating healthy relationship-building into any program.

Emphasize body ownership. Most children need someone to help them understand their rights when it comes to their body, Wyckhuys says. Use age-appropriate messages to empower young children to know that their body belongs to them alone and that they have the right to say no to anything that makes them uncomfortable.

Practice appreciation. Giving children a chance to feel seen and appreciated helps them see how they can extend that feeling to others, says Vadehra. To create that experience, SPAN engages children in a short gratitude activity in which rotating pairs of children share why their partner makes them feel thankful.

Teach children to share their emotions. Vadehra adds that it’s important to give children the chance to express their feelings, not just to learn what they are. Make a list of emotions that children can pick from to explain how they’re feeling a particular moment, he suggests, and encourage them to use “I” statements to share those feelings with others.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Both SPAN and HAVEN encourage adults to model key messages from their curricula outside of the designated program time. Repeating those messages in different settings emphasizes their importance, they say, and shows that healthy emotions and relationships matter at every age.

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