Preventing dating violence among adolescents

Sometimes it can be hard to believe that teenagers have to cope with problems of relationship violence similar to those experienced by adults. In fact, as young couples don't live together and have no real obligations towards each other, it would seem easier to simply separate when problems arise.

The students who took part in the STOP! program were more disapproving of dating violence.

However, Francine Lavoie of Université Laval came to realize, during her research work at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Intimate Relationship Problems and Sexual Abuse (CRIPCAS), that adolescents aged 14 to 16 frequently face problems of psychological, physical and sexual violence within their dating relationships. As we have seen in the case of cyber bullying, experiences like these can have serious consequences for a young person's personal development and can sometimes lead to isolation and psychological distress.

In 1994, with the support of Entraide Jeunesse Québec, Francine Lavoie decided to develop a program to prevent dating violence among adolescents (STOP!). Targeted at Secondary III (Grade 9) students, STOP! is offered in schools and youth centres and comprises two mixed-sex group sessions that deal with relationship issues. The themes covered during the sessions include respect, personal rights, and freedom versus control in dating relationships.

During these sessions, the adolescents take part in two types of activities under the supervision of specially-trained youth workers and teachers: forum theatre and visualization. During the forum theatre activity, the facilitators act out short scenes of relationship violence then ask the audience to identify the problematic violent behaviours. The adolescents are then invited to replay the scene, incorporating the proposed changes. The visualization activity, in turn, consists of asking the adolescents to close their eyes and visualize a violent scene described by the facilitator. The goal is to initiate a discussion without having to show a video that might shock the students. The teachers are also given suggestions for supplementary activities for their students, such as writing a supportive letter or email to a victim of violence.

In 2010, Francine Lavoie led a new study aimed at evaluating the program. The results show that the students who took part in the STOP! program were more disapproving of dating violence. In addition, the program appears to be just as effective for young people who have already been victims or aggressors.

Since the STOP! program's inception, the Ministry of Education has made it available throughout Québec, providing training to youth workers and teachers. The program quickly gave rise to the development of analogous programs across the province and even abroad. Indeed, some French and Belgian schools have adopted the French version of the program (ViRAJ) in its entirety or certain of its concepts. After more than 20 years of existence, it seems that the benefits and relevance of STOP! are well established. It could well prove very useful in the current context of the fight against cyber bullying.