Dozens of teens, parents, and community members gathered at the YWCA’s Olga Madrid Community Center on San Antonio’s West Side on Thursday night to learn about teen dating violence — what it is and the skills to help develop healthy relationships.

“A Conversation on Teen Dating Violence” was held as part of a nationwide YWCA campaign used to bring attention and resources to young people during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It was the first time San Antonio YWCA had participated in the community event.

“YWCA USA is a network of 200 associations across the nation working on the issue of violence against women,” said Francesca Rattray, chief executive officer of YWCA San Antonio. “Locally, we address the root cause and work to empower women through self-esteem building programs, and educating boys on their role in empowering women.”

The panel conversation included local experts on teen dating violence and centered around the traits of healthy relationships, including respectful communication, trust, and the importance of developing and maintaining individual identity.

Panelist Heidi Rueda researches teen dating violence with Hispanic youth as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Social Work. She said it’s important for teens to learn the signs of abuse because “acceptance of violence can be the norm” for some families.

“We want teens to learn how to fight fair and resolve conflict peacefully,” Rueda said. “Risks for dating violence include exposure to violence and parent-child aggression, so it is important for us to understand the signs of abuse, even if they may seem familiar.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 75 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 in Texas have either experienced teen dating violence, or know another young person who has. 

One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds other types of youth violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a nonprofit organization established in 1996 as a component of the Violence Against Women Act. 

Rueda and fellow panelists Patricia Castillo, executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, a local domestic violence education and advocacy coalition, and YWCA Program Coordinator Kimberly Berry took turns giving examples of how teens and their parents could be proactive in building healthy relationships and recognizing signs of violence.

“We need to think about the role of ‘cultura’ and how our ‘cultura’ can hurt us and perpetuate bad practices and behaviors,” Castillo said.

When Castillo asked the audience to share how cultural has hurt them, a mother there with her teenage daughter said she was taught that women are supposed to be obedient to men and they belong in the home.

“Those are the kinds of things that can hurt us,” Castillo said. “But we need to understand that we are the creators of ‘cultura.’ Every day, with everything we do, think about how we do it, why we make those decisions, and how we are going to be. We have the right to change our ‘cultura’ to make it better so that it benefits us.”

For parents, Castillo said, it can be as simple as sharing information about personal information with children to “inspire them to learn about themselves.”

“We don’t take the time to talk to our kids, and then they don’t know what to do or who they are,” Castillo said. “Then they get into a relationship when they don’t know themselves and we are surprised at the results. What country is their grandparent from? What did their grandparents do? Help to get them thinking about the person they want to be.”

Berry said parents should check in on their kids when certain friends aren’t coming around as often and ask them why, “in case the reason is jealousy in a relationship that is causing isolation.”

Throughout the conversation, parents and community members took notes, videos and photos of the screens that explained how to work toward healthy communication with their partner by not being accusatory, or territorial.

“Even if mom dragged you here [for this presentation], it’s so important for you to hear this as you’re forming your identity and deciding who you want to be,” Rueda said. “The relationships you choose to have help form identity, how you try on new roles, [and] influence peer groups.”

Jenny Hixon, the recently hired violence prevention manager for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said that a recent community-wide assessment found a need for domestic violence-related youth programming throughout the city, so the city soon will be seeing an increase in educational outreach initiatives geared toward teens and their parents.  

“Everyone saw youth programming as a big need because violence is an issue that is often generational,” Hixon said. “If we can educate and support these kids, we can really change that trajectory for our whole community.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.