In spite of, and sometimes because of, the bitter cold that February can bring, it’s a pretty romantic month. Between Valentine’s Day and the snowy, blustery world outside, what better time of year is there to snuggle up with your sweetheart by the fire?

But alongside the blizzards and romance, February is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, an opportunity for all of us to get educated and raise awareness about the dark side of relationships experienced by scores of young people in our community each year.

The numbers tell us that adolescents are especially vulnerable to experiencing abuse. Before reaching adulthood, one in three American teens will experience emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a romantic partner. Dating violence can affect anyone, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, but many teens struggle with who to turn to for help and support if their relationships become unhealthy or abusive. When they do reach out, their experience is often minimized and downplayed as “young love,” and signs that a relationship is turning dangerous are overlooked.

As educators with the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program of Family Crisis Services, my colleagues and I speak to middle school, high school and college students around Cumberland County about how to have healthy relationships, recognize signs of abuse, get help when they need it and be a supportive friend to their peers. Through these conversations, we work to give them the skills and resources they need to have respectful, positive relationships in adolescence and beyond.

But you don’t have to be a professional advocate to make a difference. Since teen dating violence is a community-level problem, everyone, regardless of their age or ability, can stand up and play a part in the movement to prevent and end it. Whether you’re a parent, an educator, a concerned citizen or a teen yourself, here are some helpful tips and suggestions for joining us in preventing teen dating abuse in February and beyond:

• Learn the signs of teen dating abuse and keep an eye out for red flags among your children, your students, your friends or your peers.

 Get to know your community resources, such as Family Crisis Services, and help the people you know who are affected by dating or domestic violence to get connected with them. (If you’re concerned about issues involving sexual violence, you can also reach out to Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine.)

 Call out examples of unhealthy or abusive relationships in media and literature and encourage discussion about them with children, students and friends.

 If someone you know is struggling with an unhealthy or abusive relationship, let them know that you’re there for them. Believe the survivor, listen with an open ear, respond without judgment and help them explore their options for getting the support they need to feel safe again. For extra help with approaching these conversations, concerned parents, teachers, friends and loved ones can call Family Crisis Services 24/7 at (800) 537-6066.

 Get involved in school or community clubs or organizations that work to end interpersonal violence. High school students are welcome to join the Youth Voices of Change group, a club focused on anti-dating violence activism that meets once a month at the Portland Public Library. Email us at [email protected] to sign up.

Dating violence and interpersonal violence are tied to many other forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. By speaking out and supporting efforts to reduce inequality in other areas of society, you can also help to end interpersonal violence for everyone, regardless of their identity.

If you’ve personally experienced dating violence and feel safe and ready to talk about it, consider sharing your story. Storytelling can be an incredibly powerful way to help others understand the impact of an issue and why it’s important.

The last couple of months have made it clear that no matter how cold it gets outside, members of our community are willing to join hands and stand up for important causes. This month and throughout the year, we hope that you’ll get together with your partner, your child or your friends, practice some healthy communication over a mug of hot chocolate and take action to end dating violence.

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