Let’s be real: Youth leadership as a promising practice for ending dating violence

Teen dating violence prevention work that has been conducted by Break The Cycle and their Let’s Be Real Youth Leadership Program.

By Alesha Istvan, PhD

Young people are experts in their own lives. They are resilient and committed and any programs oriented toward ending dating violence must work to amplify their voices into collective, community-based power. 

Break the Cycle is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and support young people to build healthy relationships and create a culture without abuse. We believe in a collaborative process for change, and apply an intergenerational approach in building community partnerships towards authentic, holistic and intentional action. Employing the socio-ecological model of well-being (Dahlberg and Krug, 2002), Break the Cycle recognizes that individuals do not exist in isolation but rather within complex interplays of contextual factors that include relationships, community and society. To this end, we simultaneously work at the various levels to address risk factors, as well as norms, beliefs and socio-economic systems that impact the lives of young people. Ultimately, the goal is to empower young people who are victims/ survivors of dating violence as well as those who are or want to become change leaders in their local communities. 

One of Break the Cycle’s key programs is Let’s Be Real, a program designed for youth leaders willing and capable of working in their communities to end dating violence. This includes facilitating activities such as peer education, social media activism, policy work, research and creative arts. This movement is set up to be an opportunity for young people to not only learn about dating violence, but to do something about it. It is responding to a very big need that continues to grow in our society.

Dating violence is prevalent and young people are left on the sidelines

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (Black et al., 2011), young people under the age of 25 experience intimate partner violence more than any other age group. Seventy-one percent of female victims of dating/domestic violence report their victimization occurred before the age of 25. For sexual violence, the statistics are similar with the majority of victimizations occurring before the age of 25 (Breiding et al., 2014). Furthermore, we find that adolescent and preadolescent sexual victimization increases the risk of young women being re-victimized in the future (Humphrey & White, 2000).  

These statistics are even more troubling as very few services are designed to serve young people. For the responses that do exist, they are usually void of culturally-relevant resources. 

Dating/domestic/sexual violence programs may work to develop advisory groups of young people to inform their work, but this tends to be a token role and while feedback is sought, it is not necessarily implemented (Break the Cycle, 2018). Break the Cycle’s Let’s Be Real works to interrupt this reality and develop a workable, meaningful way to respond to dating violence.

Break the Cycle’s Let’s Be Real as a promising practice for ending dating violence

Let’s Be Real is dating violence prevention through activism. Young people learn about dating abuse while participating in a variety of activities. Let’s Be Real functions through the innovation of young people with the support of adult allies. Its largest successes have included: district wide, student led education programming in Los Angeles; young writers blogging; young social media experts talking about dating violence on social medial platforms; young artists performing music and creating designs; and at the most foundational level, young people engaging in dialogue with one another through Real Talks.  

Real Talks are lightly facilitated conversations between young people about relationship realities and healthy relationship skills. Participants share their stories of healthy relationships, complicated relationships and even actual dating abuse. These real talks provide a space for young people to lead conversations about the good, the bad, and normal in dating and are designed to generate holistic conversations without judgment or significant influence by adults.

All of Break the Cycle’s programming stems from what we hear in real talks. To date over 600 young people have become leaders through Let’s Be Real, and Break the Cycle has embarked on refining our programming based on the lessons learned from these young leaders:

  • We must be in community to learn from community: Let’s Be Real has taught us to be more flexible, to schedule activities around young people and not the other way around; and to plan events in accessible, culturally relevant spaces. Young people, especially those young people that are part of communities of color have experienced all kinds of people looking to “help” or “learn about” them. We have learned to be intentional about how we engage especially the most vulnerable young people in our society by listening and participating.
  • We might be wrong: Promoting youth leadership means we must be willing to reflect on and refine our theories about program effectiveness. A grounded theory approach to examining the impact of our work is especially suited to taking the lead of young people (Charmaz, 2006).
  • They already know about dating violence. They want to know what we do about it: "Social Cognitive Theory" (Bandura, 1989; Aubrey, 2004) tells us that the way an individual gains knowledge, and changes attitudes is based on the interactions between that person and their surroundings. Young people, for example, change behaviors by observing and replicating, by responding to both negative and positive reinforcements of that behavior, and by feeling that their behavior actually makes a difference. Through Let’s Be Real, we model activism, reinforce and promote the good that young people are doing in the world, and provide tools for young people to work towards dating violence prevention in their local communities.

For the most part, young people already know what constitutes dating abuse. Let’s Be Real allows us to go deeper by making room for them to lead meaningful discussions and efforts. Learning from them will allow us to refine our theories and build new, culturally responsive and flexible theories that take into account their lived experiences and their insights and expertise.


Aubrey, J.S. (2004). Sex and punishment: An examination of sexual consequences and the sexual double standard in teen programming. Sex Roles, 50(7-8), 505–514.

Bandura, A. (1989). Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 4(9), 1175–1184.

Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Break the Cycle. (2018). Bridging the Gap: LOVE is Advocacy Survey of Rural Services Report.

Breiding, M.J, Smith, S., Basile, K., Walters, M., Chen, J., and Merrick, M. (2014). Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization-National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States: 2011 Surveillance Summaries. Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retreived from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6308a1.htm?s_cid=ss6308a1_e

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative research. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Dahlberg, L.L. and Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence-a global public health problem. In E. G. Krug, L.L Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano (Eds.), World report on violence and health (pp. 1-56). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Humphrey, J.A., & White, J.W. (2000). Women’s vulnerability to sexual assault from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27(6), 419-424.

About the author

Alesha Istvan, PhDAlesha Istvan, PhD,  is the president and chief operating officer at Break the Cycle, an organization whose mission is to support young people to build healthy relationships and create a culture without abuse. She also works as an adjunct lecturer in sociology at National University and a founding partner of Collective Capacity Consulting. Istvan has over 12 years of experience working to end gendered violence and has a passion for integrating program planning, organizational management, research and evaluation. Prior to joining Break the Cycle, she worked as the prevention director at Texas Council on Family Violence. Her previous experience includes being the executive director of the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Bryan, Texas and a victim’s advocate at the Shelby County, District Attorney’s office in Memphis. She received her MA in women's studies from the University of Memphis and her PhD in sociology from Texas A&M University.