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Empowering Teens in Relationships: Respect & Bodily Autonomy for All

In the U.S., one in three teens experiences dating violence (TDV) – meaning their partner uses behaviors like physical violence, gaslighting, digital harassment, and stalking to gain and maintain control over them.* This resource is designed to help parents, caregivers, community members, and professionals support and empower teens by exploring the under-recognized intersection between violence prevention and body liberation and providing dozens of suggestions for a variety of situations.

What does body liberation have to do with preventing and addressing TDV?

Both body liberation and violence prevention are about:

1. Affirming our agency and building freedom from external control

2. Expanding access to resources and care

3. Healing within ourselves and in the context of our relationships 







In addition to social factors like diet culture, the sexualization of Black girls, and limited access to reproductive healthcare, experiences of dating violence can diminish teens’ bodily autonomy and sense of self-worth. Specifically, abuse can impact body image, erode teens’ trust in their own perceptions and experiences, and limit their bodily independence from the partner who is coercing and controlling them. Teen dating violence may include the behaviors/tactics below and others.

Body Liberation as Bodily Autonomy and Safety

Because of all the factors that influence teens’ bodies and bodily autonomy, it’s important to empower them to create physical safety and respect in their relationships by supporting their agency. In any relationship, teens should define what it means for a partner to respect them and their body. In addition, having a deep understanding that they deserve respect and that their partners do, too, means that they can better navigate relationship dynamics, set boundaries, and balance healthy intimacy with independence.

The complex relationships we have with our bodies are deeply individual and personal. We all have experiences relating to our bodies both negative and positive. “Difficult experiences… can coincide with feelings of joy, appreciation, comfort and acceptance, especially when our environments support our resilience and healing” (Promising Futures 2023). Within this complexity, practicing bodily autonomy, or “the right for a person to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion,” can be preventative and protective for children and youth (Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego 2019). Affirming the complexity of experiences and teaching children and youth that their bodies are their own can help them identify abuse, build respectful relationships, reclaim their decision-making power, and heal.

What can parents, caregivers, family members, professionals, and other adults do to support bodily autonomy for teens?

1. Build trust and safety long-term

Parents and caregivers develop a sense of trust and safety with teens over time, and relationships are always in flux. But there are many things that parents and other adults can do to provide safe and non-judgmental spaces for teens, create an expectation that they deserve respect, and empower them to seek what they need when they need it. For example:

 Offer immediate support that young people will actually seek out. This means letting youth know that they can come to you for help without fear of punishment for their actions in a time of crisis. Lessons can be learned once safety is achieved.

 Model respect for all bodies (e.g., addressing ableist language, asking before hugging a young person, etc.).

 Ask teens what you can do to increase their comfort.

 Provide concrete resources to support self-care and expression.

2. Provide medically accurate and honest information about reproductive & sexual health

Risks of TDV such as unintended pregnancy can further isolate survivors from the support and resources they need. A person’s age should not limit their pregnancy options. We are all experts in our own lives, and when we have access to accurate information and resources, we can make the best decisions for ourselves. Parents, caregivers and other trusted adults can support young people to make wellinformed decisions by:

Being open about reproductive health and access to reproductive health

– Share your reproductive health values while allowing young people to decide their own; even if they conflict with your beliefs.

– Discuss pregnancy options, access to abortion, and contraceptives.

Teaching youth that reproductive health affects everyone

 Correct the misconception that reproductive health is purely a women’s or girls’ responsibility. Responsibility for decisions we make around our bodies and reproductive health is not limited by one’s gender, sexuality, or their capacity for pregnancy. Everyone – men and boys, women and girls, non-binary, trans, and intersex folks – has the responsibility to make informed choices for their health, bodies, and how they affect others, especially a romantic partner.

Explaining sexual consent and normalizing rejection

 Discuss with young people examples of sexual activity, such as kissing or touching. Let them know that all people involved in sexual activities must say “yes” to give consent.

 Encourage youth to practice bodily autonomy and their right to give or not to give consent. Teach them that if they give consent, they have the right to change their mind and withdraw consent if they do not feel safe, comfortable, or if they just aren’t into it. 

Explain that consent and individual boundaries must be respected and that it is normal to be rejected or told “no.” Set the expectation that rejection will happen and that this is not a negative reflection of us. Discuss the positive ways they can navigate difficult feelings that come with rejection.

3. Age-appropriate conversations, sexual education, and inclusivity

Medically accurate, intersectional, affirming, and honest sex education – whether formal or not – provides children and youth with tools and knowledge they need to understand their bodies, identities, and experiences. Sexual education has the potential to empower young people to take up space while respecting people whose bodies, experiences, and identities differ from their own. Age-appropriate conversations with children and youth about consent, boundaries, and control help to prevent child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and teen dating violence (Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego 2019). You can use comprehensive sexual education to support and empower children and youth by:

 Normalizing and celebrating differences in identity, in all contexts.

 Allowing and empowering young people to control and make decisions around their identity and bodies for themselves.

 Being an askable parent/caregiver.

 Teaching children that if something happens to their body that they don’t like, it is not their fault (Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego 2019).

Voting! Sex education decisions are made at the local and state level. Lawmakers in statehouse and city halls control the quality and content of schools’ sex education. Use your power to vote for representatives who will make young people and our communities safer.

4. If a teen is experiencing dating violence...

When facing the risks of teen dating violence, a survivor may feel they must sacrifice their bodily autonomy to seek help from a parent or caregiver. When possible, adults must support the young people in their lives to make decisions that feel right to them – especially when the outcomes will directly impact them. Increasing comfort can also be protective when someone is experiencing violence.

 Agency: Ask open questions about their needs and brainstorm solutions with them.

 Safety and comfort: Connect them to other adults – like a healthcare provider or community leader – whom they trust.

 Resilience and healing: Ask them what helps them feel loved, and what doesn’t.

Get the full resource: 16 Ways to Support Teens Experiencing TDV

5. If a teen is using violence in a dating relationship...

It’s important to avoid making the assumption that one partner in a relationship is the “perpetrator” and one is the “victim.” Keep in mind that someone who is experiencing violence in a relationship, or has in the past, might also use harmful behaviors with a partner. Focus on the unique circumstances and needs of the teen(s) you are trying to support* and remember that care, resources, and connection can support change and healing for teens who have used violence with a partner.

 Resilience and healing: Ask them what they are worried about in their relationship, and brainstorm solutions with them. 

 Connection: Help them balance time spent with partners, family, friends, etc. Encourage them to tune in to physical/emotional signals that they want connection or time alone.

 Agency: Ask open questions about their experiences and needs. This can be as simple as, “What will help you most in this moment?”

 Safety and comfort: Remind them of ways they can reach you when you’re not together.

 Each teen has unique needs, whether they have used violence in a dating relationship or not. This resource can help adults support any young person in a dating relationship to be safe and connected, practice agency and respect, and heal.

*The safety of the survivor is a priority – avoid taking actions that could exacerbate the violence they are experiencing.

Since our bodies are often at their most vulnerable in dating relationships, the ability to practice bodily autonomy directly impacts our safety in those relationships. But as legal minors, children and youth are often blocked from or limited in their decision-making power. Societal limitations and control over what young people can and cannot do further challenge their ability to practice bodily autonomy. 

With the prevalence of teen dating violence and other possibilities, adults’ protective actions often center around limiting teens’ exposure of their vulnerabilities. Also important are the actions that support young people to recognize and use their own power and agency. Often overlooked when thinking about violence in teen relationships, bodily autonomy and other principles of body liberation can strengthen our efforts to prevent and address violence and create more opportunities for healing within our communities.