Helping Teens Stay Safe in the Dating World

February is Teen Dating Awareness (TeenDV) Month.

According to

“Dating violence is more common than many people think. One in three teens in the U.S. will experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse by someone they are in a relationship with before they become adults. And nearly half (43%) of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors.”

To talk more about issues facing teens today, we’ve invited Lisa Gaeta, CEO of IMPACT Personal Safety, SoCal, ESD Global Advisory Committee member, and co-author of The Safety Godmothers: The ABCs of Awareness, Boundaries and Confidence for Teens.

Welcome, Lisa!

Q. Why do you think it’s important to have a month dedicated to raising awareness of teen dating violence?

A. I think the average person has no idea how prevalent teen dating violence is. Having a month dedicated to discussions, classes, even memes, helps to raise the awareness. As we’ve seen recently in the Cosby and Weinstein cases, once people realize they are not alone, it’s not their fault, there’s nothing to be ashamed about, that they are able to step up and acknowledge that it happened to them. If we keep the topic in the public eye, people will feel more comfortable to get help and speak up.

Q. In your classes for teens, what verbal and / or physical skills do you teach that are directly related to dating?


1. We teach the 4Ds of Boundary Setting.

  • Distance: How close am I going to let them get?

  • Dynamics: What is going on with him, with me, and around us?

  • Dissuasion: What can I say (verbal strategies) or do (body language) to get them to leave me alone?

  • Decide: What am I going to do?

2. We practice specific scenarios with familiars;

  • How to say “no”

  • How to ask them to stop touching you

  • Specific scenarios at parties or on dates

3. Familiar Verbal Strategies:

  • Identify the behavior

  • Be specific

  • “Stop touching me” vs. “don’t do that”

  • Make eye contact

  • Don’t glare

  • Don’t demure

  • Congruent body language

  • No Laughing

  • Present yourself as serious

  • Be direct

  • Don’t try to let them down easy

  • Say what you mean

  • Don’t lead them on

  • Be direct

  • Offer an alternative if possible

  • Don’t apologize for your feelings

Q. “NO” is such an important word. What makes it so difficult to say? And why is it so often misunderstood?

A. From the time we are little, we are reprimanded for saying “no” to people in authority. We are taught that agreeing with and acquiescing to is what “good kids” do, and since we humans want to be loved, those concepts are ingrained in us.

Many of us have also had negative consequences when we have said “no,” so we develop a fear around saying it in any circumstance rather than in specific circumstances. What becomes confusing is setting boundaries with people in authority such as parents or teachers vs peers or someone who is actually preying upon us.

Many of us are also socialized to not “hurt people’s feelings," mostly because we don’t like having our own feelings hurt, but I had this discussion with one of my 8th grade classes today. I asked, “what if you do something that bothers your friends, but no one ever tells you about it because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the group talks about it when you are not around? Would you rather someone you care about have a heart-to-heart with you, or just continue as is with no one telling you the truth?” In every case, they would rather someone be straight up with them.

And finally, a discussion I have in every class when it comes to familiar boundary setting is this: why is it OK for you to be uncomfortable but not OK for the person who is infringing on your boundaries to be uncomfortable?

So, for example, you have a creepy uncle whom you have to see and greet every holiday. You get creeped out by his hugs but you never say anything and you let him hug you, every single time. You are uncomfortable every single time you see this relative. So why is it OK for you to be uncomfortable every single time but it’s not OK for him to be uncomfortable the one time you set the boundary? We hear things like “oh it’s not a big deal, don’t cause a scene, he’s a nice guy,” etc. But if these things were true, then you wouldn’t be feeling creeped out by him. And I promise if he’s doing it to you, he’s doing it to someone else. Someone needs to set a boundary with this person.

One of my students today said she was at a family event this weekend and they took a group picture. Everybody put their arms around each other. She was next to a relative she didn’t really know and felt like his hand was a little too low. It wasn’t on her butt, but too close for comfort. She reached down and moved his hand to the spot she felt most comfortable. He kept his hand there, no one made a comment, and the boundary was set...SIMPLE!!

Q. Do you have any tips for teaching teens to develop a strong, assertive “NO?”

A. Practice. Practice with friends who will support you, practice on strangers by speaking up for yourself in public places, such as restaurants, practice on siblings and even parents. You need to be able to say “no” in many different circumstances, so just practice.

In IMPACT classes, practicing in live scenarios with the padded assailant is why people learn so quickly. When you are adrenalized and then make yourself respond in a specific way, you will remember it similarly to how you remember how to play a sport.

If you don’t have access to an IMPACT or ESD class, you can get together with friends and practice scenarios with one another (only people who are serious about learning and not just goofing around).

Q. In your book, “The Safety Godmothers,” you point out that girls who have only recently been given permission to date are often afraid that reporting violence will result in a loss of independence. How do you address this in your classes?

A. One of the things that causes the most trouble for teens is not speaking up. They don’t tell anyone about violence because they think it will get them or the other person in trouble. “If I’m assaulted and tell my parents, they won’t let me date anymore.”

This idea is problematic for several reasons; you don’t get the help you need, they get to keep on doing it to other people - and they WILL, you feel badly about yourself and are probably beating yourself up about your actions, to name a few.

You don’t have to tell your parents, you can tell a trusted teacher, counselor, coach, aunt, any adult whom you trust. It’s important to get the help you need and it’s important that the other person faces consequences for their actions - though that’s not as important as you getting help.

Q. Empowerment self-defense training is a major component of violence prevention education for girls. What should violence prevention education look like for boys?

A. In my experience, boys need the same thing. They have been socialized to mostly deal with their feelings through anger and violence. If someone insults you, instead of a conversation, you have a fight. But boys are not really taught how to fight, they are just EXPECTED to know how to fight, as if it’s a birth rite. My philosophy about learning to defend yourself is the same for all genders: If you know - on a visceral level - that you can defend yourself physically, you will be much more able and willing to use verbal strategies instead of - or before - physical.

We’ve seen this to be true in all of our boys and men’s classes; once they know they can fight, they don’t NEED to anymore. When a boy or a man “knows” his masculinity, he doesn’t need to prove it to others. They begin to use verbal strategies more and are able to avoid altercations because they have nothing to prove.

We had a young man in a co-ed class who really felt like he didn’t need the class and since he was BMOC, all the boys were as uninterested as him. We did “creepy” verbal scenarios where they had to talk their way out of the situation - no fighting. He did his scenario and says something like, “if anyone ever comes at me like that, I’ll just kick his ass!” The next class he says to the group, “I want to apologize for being a jerk last week. I was at the beach and some creepy dude come up to me and starts saying some really inappropriate things to me. I turned to him and automatically got into ready stance and yelled at him to get away and leave me alone. And he DID!!”

We all give the assailant too much power...

Q. What can we teach young children and pre-teens to prepare them for dating and help them develop healthy relationships?

A. Teaching young people to speak up as early as possible is key. We have discussions and we do role plays in our classes to help them practice what they can say and do. I think teens (well, everyone, really) need to physically act out things in order to do them in real life. Just like a sport, you wouldn’t have a kid read a book on baseball and then stick them in the world series - because that’s what it could be, the most important thing this kid will need to do is defend themselves and all they’ve done is read a book or be told what to do?

So the answer is, give them an ESD course and let them practice and learn what it means to be in charge of the decisions in their lives. Because I promise you, they are learning about this stuff on the internet and not by people you would want them learning from. Better you help them, rather than let them figure it out on their own.

Q. What are some of the most common questions about dating you get from your teenage students? What advice do you give?


1. What if someone drugs me:

If someone drugs you and you have no support system with you, you’re in trouble. Not getting drugged in specific circumstances requires pre-planning. If you are going out to a bar or a party or on a date with a new person, it’s important to do a few things:

  • Don’t go alone or if you’re meeting a date there, let a trusted friend know when and where you’re going.

  • Don’t accept a drink from anyone (yes, even if you know them) that you, yourself, didn’t see get poured. I know this brings up many more questions, like what if we’re at a table and the waitress brings us drinks I didn’t see get poured. But everything is circumstantial, if you didn’t interact with the bartender, they’re probably not going to randomly drug you, but if you’re at a frat party, the person who pours your drink could, most definitely, be set up to drug you.

  • Take your drink with you when you go to the bathroom. Weird, I know, but it’s either that or ask for a new drink when you get back.

  • Don’t over-indulge. I know you’re there to have fun, but there is a limit to the value of drunken fun when the consequence is giving up all control of what happens to you for as long as you are drunk. Because that’s what you do, you give up personal control and let someone else take over.

2. But what if I like them?

We may find ourselves in an intimate situation with someone we like when the situation starts to get past the point of comfort. Many times people don’t speak up because we’re afraid the person won’t like us anymore if we say no.

But if you say to someone “I like you, but I’m not ready to go any further. I’m afraid if I tell you, you won’t like me anymore, but I hope that you are willing to get to know me a little bit before we become any more intimate," their response is really important. If they get mad - good to know now, good to know ahead of time, good bye. But if they agree with you then that’s exciting! The last thing you want is to begin a relationship with you making a complete compromise, because it will only get worse. If they don’t respect your boundary in this very important moment, they will continue to disrespect your boundaries until the end of the relationship, or until you enforce them.

Q. What are some of the most common questions about teen dating you get from parents? What advice do you give?

A. Parents don’t ask specific questions about dating, they’re freaked out about it and just want to know if I address it. In my grad speech at the high schools, I always say, “we talk about dating and parties and college and sex and drinking and drugs and you’re welcome!” and that always gets the biggest laugh.

Q. Is there anything else about teen dating that you’d like to share with us?

A. Young people are going to date and they are going to go to parties and many of them are going to drink and some will take drugs. You can either participate in preparing them to handle all of the things that will come up, or you can leave it to chance and hope everything works out. “Just say no” is no longer viable for parties or sex or most situations teens face. And really, what teen actually listens to parents who say abstinence in all situations is the only option? They are in discovery mode and want to know why and “because I said so” works about as well on them as it did on you. “I turned out fine” is a lazy response, teens are dealing with things we never dreamed of. We can either guide them and let the experts (EDS/IMPACT) give them the tools they will need to navigate their world or...let them be guided by the internet and their peers.

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa!

About Lisa:

Half-way through her master’s program in 1984, Lisa took her first IMPACT class. From her first heel-palm, she knew she was hooked and her career plans changed drastically! She and her partner at the time, Al Potash, started what is now IMPACT Personal Safety, SoCal in 1985. Lisa, along with the various teams she has worked with over the decades, has made considerable changes and developments to the original program. Most notably, changes and additions to the verbal strategies that are taught in most IMPACT programs. She continues to encourage course development and improvement from her staff.

Lisa has been a driving force in keeping IMPACT alive in Southern California and all over the United States. She has trained hundreds of instructors around the world to teach IMPACT and has taught thousands of women, children, and men how to live their lives more safely…and, well, she taught them to kick ass, too!

Lisa currently serves as CEO of IMPACT Personal Safety, SoCal. She also continues to train new instructors and teach classes. During the school year, she teaches daily at various high schools around the Los Angeles area.

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