Fostering Healthy Relationships

This message of Weekly Wisdom was written by Lyn Staack, Youth Education Coordinator for the Advocacy Center, a proud partner of the Community Coalition for Healthy Youth.

Valentine’s Day and Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

When I learned that February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, my first thought was “Great, I get to be the person who ruins Valentine’s Day by talking about relationship abuse.”  Since then, I have thought a lot about how to talk about dating violence in the context of the social messages, practices and complicated feelings connected with Valentine’s Day. Here is some of what I have learned:

One: It is helpful to have a reminder about how common abuse is in teen relationships.

Teen dating abuse impacts everyone, not just teens. It also affects their families, friends, classmates and teachers, teammates and coaches, coworkers and employers, even unrelated bystanders. However we measure the cost– financially, declining performance, broken relationships, physical and mental injury and trauma, lost lives — it is too much. Every abusive interaction does harm. And, teen dating violence is much more common than most people realize.

Did you know that as many as I in 3 teens, in multiple US studies over the past 10 years, said that they had experienced dating abuse? Or that teens of all genders experience all forms of dating violence including digital, verbal, physical and sexual abuse?

Two: Celebrating, modeling, and talking about respectful, safe, and healthy expressions of love is abuse prevention.

It is as important for us to know what healthy relationships look, sound, and feel like as it is for us to know how to recognize abuse in relationships. In fact, I believe that not having a clear sense of what we want makes us more vulnerable to risky decisions and manipulation.

Many unhealthy behaviors are romanticized in movies, songs, novels, social media and even our conversations with one another. It is not uncommon for people to assume that controlling or forceful behaviors are normal parts of a relationship. Jealousy and protection are seen as ways of expressing the depth of someone’s love. But intensity and possessiveness are 2 of the “10 Signs of Unhealthy Relationships” from the One Love Foundation. In addition, these tendencies are seen in the relationship warning signs from the organization Love Is Respect, including   when someone:

  • Expresses extreme jealousy or insecurity.
  • Checks their partners phone, email, or social media accounts without their permission.
  • Exhibits possessive or controlling behavior.
  • Tells their partner what to wear or not wear, or who they can or cannot talk with.

Learning to recognize controlling and abusive behaviors is an important part of preventing dating violence, and lists of unhealthy behaviors are useful tools. So is teaching youth to trust their own guts, instincts and feelings– if they have a sense of what healthy loving relationships feel like. It is very difficult to know what a healthy relationship feels like if you have not had the chance to experience and practice healthy relationship skills as a child.

Three: Valentine’s Day gives us a chance to talk about respect and consent.

“BE MINE”  I know that tone of voice and facial expression are lost when we stamp a message onto a Necco candy heart. Still, some of the phrases commonly seen on candy hearts and kid’s Valentines offer opportunities for us to talk about what we want to be saying and expressing.

Consent is one way to put respect into practice, and it’s a crucial part of healthy interactions in all areas of our lives, not just sexuality. Communication, respect, and honesty are the building blocks of healthy relationships, and consent reinforces all of these.

It’s never too early to start teaching consent concepts. The messages we take in as young children shape our ideas about all kinds of relationships and set the foundation for healthier relationships as children become teens and young adults. The more we talk about consent, the more comfortable it feels, and eventually, talking openly and respectfully with friends and partners becomes second nature.

It does not fit on a small candy heart, but the phrase  “Will you be my Valentine?” is more clearly a question, not a demand. “Be Mine?” is a good short version. “I statements” are another respectful way to open conversation. “I want to be your Valentine. What do you say?” starts with the speaker sharing what they want and then waiting to see how the other person replies.

Of course, it is also best to talk about what it means to be someone’s “valentine” or whatever it is we are asking of them. With young kids, Valentine’s Day is primarily an expression of friendship, but can also refer to crushes and attractions — perhaps most notably early crushes on teachers. By late elementary school “be mine” may mean “be my boyfriend or girlfriend.” Ask questions about what these words mean and what different kinds of love look like.

This Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate love and the wonderfully diverse ways love is shared in different kinds of relationships.

I hope you will also. After all, educating ourselves and others about healthy relationships is a pretty good way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Events this February:

February 9

Wear Orange Day! Wearing or sharing orange on February 9 is one way to help us let teens and young adults in Tompkins County know that there are people they can turn to when they have relationship questions.

February 11

Valentine’s Day Trivia with the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County at 7pm. Questions will focus on pop culture, terminology, and healthy relationship behaviors. To play:

2.11.21 Triva Night

Thursday, February 11

For caregivers and parents of younger children, two workshops through Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County — Tompkins Families! with Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families. learn more @TompkinsFamilies

And as always, to request programs about domestic and sexual violence and abuse prevention, for teens or adults, email

Concerns about an unhealthy relationship or someone’s safety? Reach us through our 24 hour hotline at 607-277-5000.