Supporting Youth Healthy Relationships: Introduction to the HOPELab

Guest Post Written by Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary

Social connection is a fundamental need for people throughout their lives. In adolescence, social connections are an important way to learn about ourselves and who we might become. These connections also help us feel supported and that we belong. Parents/caregivers remain a very important source of social connection and support in adolescence (even if it might not always feel that way!). In addition, peer relationships become increasingly important, and dating/sexual relationships may start for many (but not all) youth. Peer and dating relationships have substantial influence on a youth’s well-being, and it is critical that these relationships are healthy. By healthy relationships, we mean relationships that feel safe and supportive, and free of violence, exploitation, and coercion. Many youth in Canada experience healthy relationships with peers and dating partners, but unfortunately, a substantial minority do not. Research conducted by our team has found that 1 in 3 youth in grades 9 and 10 in Canada report physical, psychological, and/or cyber teen dating violence (TDV) victimization in a dating relationship in the past year. Further, around 1 in 3 youth in grades 6-10 in Canada report being bullied at school in the past month.

These experiences of victimization and exclusion are deeply painful, and also violate a child’s right to healthy development in the settings where they work, live, learn, play, and pray. In my research group in the Department of Psychology – the HOPE (Healthy relatiOnships Promotion tEam) Lab – our mission is to conduct research that promotes healthy relationships for children and youth in school and community settings, as a foundation for well-being in childhood and adolescence.

To achieve this mission, our research projects fall into three main areas: 

1) understanding teen dating violence; 

2) evaluating healthy relationships promotion and suicide prevention programs in school and community settings; and, 

3) developing and evaluating implementation support tools for healthy relationship program delivery.

Our lab team is composed of undergraduate students, graduate (Master’s and PhD) trainees, postdoctoral trainees, and research scientists. We also collaborate with a number of community and research partners, as well as youth advisories, both provincially and nationally.

Teen Dating Violence

Our lab has a number of projects focused on better understanding teen dating violence (TDV) in Canada. By TDV, we mean physical, sexual, and psychological violence, or stalking, experienced in a dating and/or sexual relationship between the ages of 11-18. TDV can happen in-person or online, and is experienced by youth of all genders and sexualities. 

TDV affects a substantial minority of youth in Canada, and is associated with negative outcomes – including substance use, suicidal thoughts, and depressive feelings – into young adulthood. At its most serious, teen dating violence can lead to intimate partner homicide: in Canada, 16% of intimate partner homicide victims from 2010-2019 were aged 14-24. Teen dating violence is also strongly linked to the experience of victimization by an intimate partner well into adulthood. 

Given this, our research focus is to better understand risk and protective factors for TDV in the Canadian context, so that we can design more effective prevention tools. We have found that youth in Canada who experience marginalization (e.g., due to racism, poverty) are at greater risk for dating violence. It is very important to point out that this increased risk is not because of individual deficits in the youth or their family; instead, this increased risk speaks to how systems of oppression shape opportunities and resources. This means that to prevent dating violence, we need to challenge and end systems of oppression like racism, colonialism, and sexism, in addition to building youth skills and capacities to engage in healthy relationships. In our next project in this area, we will use national Canadian data to explore experiences of TDV among youth with disabilities.

Healthy Relationships Promotion and Suicide Prevention

In our healthy relationships promotion work, we partner with community organizations and schools that are working to build spaces where youth feel safe and supported. We support these organizations by evaluating their program offerings, to ensure they are effective. Our main partner in this work is the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary, AB. Since 2016, we have partnered with this organization to lead the evaluation of their WiseGuyz program (a program that has also been supported by Silver Gummy!). WiseGuyz is a gender-transformative healthy relationships program for adolescent boys that focuses on building their knowledge and skills in healthy relationships and sexual health, and to explore who they want to be as a ‘guy’ in the world. We have conducted quantitative, qualitative, and arts-based evaluation of this program, and have found that it is a promising practice for violence prevention with adolescent boys. We are currently wrapping up a multi-year outcome evaluation, where we will compare long-term outcomes for boys who did and didn’t participate in WiseGuyz. We are excited to be able to report on these findings soon!

Unhealthy relationships – including those that include TDV or bullying – are unfortunately linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Because of this, we are also working with school and community partners in Alberta on youth suicide prevention tools. Our current work in this area is focused on developing a new training that uses virtual humans (i.e., avatars) to help adults support Autistic and non-binary youth who may be at risk of suicide. We are conducting this project in partnership with the ENHANCE Lab at the University of Calgary.

Implementation Support Tools

Developing effective programs is important, but they ultimately won’t help if they aren’t used in appropriate settings. Thus, the third arm of our research focuses on designing tools to help schools and community organizations implement and sustain healthy relationship promotion and suicide prevention programs. Currently, we are working with the Centre for Sexuality to understand and support WiseGuyz implementation across the country, and with the Centre for Intervention Research in Schools at Ohio University to develop an implementation support platform for elementary teachers.

Silver Gummy Support

We are very excited to receive support from Silver Gummy for our work. Our project with Silver Gummy is called “What Can I Do? Exploring Policy Options for Caregivers of Youth Experiencing Dating Violence.” We are conducting this work in partnership with PREVNet, a national organization focused on promoting healthy relationships for children and youth. In this project, we aim to (1) understand the federal and provincial policy landscape for addressing TDV, and (2) learn from parents/caregivers what they need to better support a child who has experienced/is experiencing TDV, in order to inform future policy. These findings will us create a tip sheet for parents/caregivers in each province with recommendations to better support a child experiencing TDV.

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