How Can School-Based Support Groups Help Prevent Teen Dating Violence?

Teen support group

Implementing a Targeted Teen Dating Abuse Prevention Program: Challenges and Successes Experienced by Expect Respect Facilitators” (abstract). Barbara Ball, Kristin M. Holland, Khiya J. Marshall, Caroline Lippy, Sumati Jain, Kathleen Souders, and Ruth P. Westby. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 56, No. 2, Supp. 2 (2015).

What it’s about: Researcher Barbara Ball and her colleagues interviewed seven support group facilitators for Expect Respect, a school-based program for preventing teen dating violence. Middle and high school students were eligible to participate in the 24-week program if they reported exposure to domestic violence, child maltreatment, bullying, dating violence, or community violence. The authors wanted to understand what factors contributed to the successes and challenges of running a dating violence prevention support group during school hours, and how facilitators created a safe and supportive group environment. The research team arranged for staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct 60-minute phone interviews with the facilitators in the middle and at the end of the school year.

Why read it: Previous research suggests a need for youth programs that target more than one form of violence, yet very few such programs have been evaluated, the authors say. Specialized teen dating violence prevention programs are not commonly offered within a school setting, they add, although schools may present fewer barriers and less stigma than community providers.

Ball et al. offer some practical guidance for partnering with schools to provide a teen dating violence prevention program for youth with exposure to violence. They also share facilitators’ perspectives about how support group members bond with and become sources of support for one another.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The research team identified the following themes around facilitators' experiences with the Expect Respect program:

  1. Opportunities and challenges of running a program in a school setting. The facilitators said school support was essential for running a successful support group. For example, lack of an enthusiastic school contact person or a well-defined student referral process could cause support groups to flounder. Also, whether the school culture acknowledged or denied the existence of teen dating violence greatly affected the ability to build a group.
  2. Characteristics and evolution of a supportive group. According to facilitators, groups in which youth took initiative and leadership within the group established positive group norms and a sense of safety. As an example, youth who shared their experiences with relationship, family, or community violence opened the door for other youth to open up and strengthen the group bond. Through this process of sharing and then receiving feedback and support, youth gained awareness of the violence in their relationships, facilitators say, as well as the actions they could take to end the cycle.
  3. How students connect to the material and apply it to their lives. Facilitators observed that providing information during the groups helped youth challenge their existing relationship beliefs, discern healthy relationships from abusive ones, and know how to seek help and end unhealthy relationships. Facilitators said they also observed clear changes in students’ behaviors, levels of awareness, and thoughts about relationship violence. One facilitator said a student shared her new awareness that she no longer had to use fighting as a way to solve to her problems.

Ball and her research team offer recommendations for organizations that are considering running a school-based support group for preventing teen dating violence. First, school counselors need to receive training about dating violence and receive clear school guidelines about how to respond to dating violence incidents as they are reported. Second, the authors recommend viewing students’ achievements through the context of their daily experiences, which may involve exposure to multiple types of violence. Facilitators should be patient with students’ growth and changing awareness about relationship abuse, Ball et al. write, recognizing that some may need additional time and supports.

Additional references: Look for more articles about teen dating abuse prevention and related interventions in our research library.

Check out this toolkit to learn more about programs for preventing teen dating violence.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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