Injury Prevention

Empowering Students to Embrace Healthy Relationships

By: Kevin Borrup, DrPH, JD, MPA

Most people are surprised to learn that one in three adolescents experiences physical, emotional or sexual abuse. This compelling data prompted us a few years ago to partner with The Allstate Foundation to develop and implement a program designed to support young people to better understand the dynamics in relationships, especially violent relationships. That program, now called Building a Culture of Healthy Relationships (BCHR), engages young people in activities and discussions that promote critical thinking about relationships.

During five sessions implemented in a high school, young people explore their own personal values, boundaries and expectations. They also learn how to be an ally. In the fall of 2019, we held BCHR sessions in three high schools. In one of those schools, we reached every junior and senior. We have found that the more students we reach in a single school, the more that students talk about these subjects with their peers. In the end, what we want is for students to feel empowered to take action in their own lives.

The consequences of not addressing this subject with young people can be dire. In fact, we incorporate material from the OneLove Foundation into BCHR. OneLove’s Escalation workshop involves having young people watch a brief story about a young woman who is involved in an increasingly abusive relationship, resulting in her death. This is based on the real life murder of Yeardley Love who was killed while away at college. Unfortunately, each year we see too many young people killed by someone who supposedly loves them. OneLove’s materials help us to explore the powerful effects of power and control in relationships and the potential role that an ally can play. We all can be powerful allies to our friends, our families, and even strangers.

Learn more about the Building a Culture of Healthy Relationships curriculum.

High school students bring their own experiences into the sessions and are eager to apply what they know in our conversations. Our society is inundated with negative messaging, in our movies, music, and personal lives. In one exercise, students analyze music lyrics and identify the negative messaging. Current events also influence our conversations. In the past year, headlines about Jeffery Epstein and R. Kelly have dominated the news and young people are very aware of these crimes. In applying what they have learned about power and control, students are readily able to see in these two men how they used their status to threaten and isolate young women, grooming them for sexual abuse.

When we ask students to tell us what they expect from a relationship, we commonly hear words like respect, trust, truth, two-way communication, caring, kindness and love. These are common values that we would all like to have in our relationships. BCHR helps students to recognize what’s not healthy in the relationships around them and to practice taking action. Finally, when we talk with students we ask them if they have a trusted adult, someone who embodies those positive qualities we mentioned above, to whom they go to for support if they need it. If you are reading this, ask yourself who counts you as their trusted adult? Make the time, check in with young people who trust you, and talk openly about healthy relationships.

Read more of our Injury Prevention blogs.

Kevin Borrup, DrPH, JD, MPA, is the associate director of Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center.

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