Holding Space So Youth Can #TellThemNow

Written by Heather Demetrios

As a young adult author, my goal when I sit down to write a story from a teen protagonist’s point of view is to present their experiences as authentically as possible, to try to get in the skin of this character and see the world the way she would in 2018. The vast majority of us who write for teens do so because our teen years still resonate deeply with us. Sadly, in many cases this is because we had particularly tough experiences growing up including, in my case, teen dating violence. I reached out to Day One after learning about the amazing work they do to educate both youth and the adults who serve them, immediately seeing that they would be an ally in my own efforts to bring the realities of teen dating violence to light. My most recent novel, Bad Romance, is a semi-autobiographical journey through one girl’s experience of abuse by her boyfriend. In it, I show how a teen might find themselves in this situation, and what factors—such as a less-than-ideal home life, manipulation, and emotional abuse—make it so hard to get out.   

This past Saturday, I attended my first You(th) Already Know conference—probably the best kickoff to Teen Dating Violence Awareness month I could imagine. I wish my main character, Grace, could have gone to this. I wish my teen self could have attended, too. This annual Day One conference is aimed at creating a space where youth and youth-serving professionals can come together to strategize on how to end teen dating violence. With one in three teens reporting that they’ve experienced some kind of abuse in their relationships (including verbal and emotional abuse), events like these are needed now more than ever. One major reason this event is so powerful is that teen voices are valued here. Their experiences, opinions, and ideas are just as important—if not more important—than those of the adult attendees. As a young adult author, I’m constantly amazed by teens. Not only are today’s youth incredibly articulate about their inner lives, they’re deeply observant about relationship patterns and well-versed in pop psychology.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the conference’s opening act by the ridiculously talented Lavender Gonzalez, a trans teen with a soulful voice that rivals Nina Simone, and an incisive songwriter who is able to distill the horrors of an abusive relationship so well. In the song “Believe” he sings: I wanted to believe you so bad that I forgot to believe in myself. And in the incredibly timely “Me, Too” he sang these powerful original lyrics: When you hear my story, don’t say it isn’t true / Because when they hear my story / they’ll raise their hands and say Me, Too. This really sums up the heart of the conference, which was all about how to tell our stories (in the cases of teens) and how to hear others’ stories (the adults who serve them). That’s what this month’s Day One hashtag #TellThemNow is all about.

In one of the day’s workshops, The Anti-Violence Project dug into what it means to hold space for someone telling you what’s going on with them. “Hold space” is a term that’s been bandied about recently, a beautiful idea of being someone who can allow the people around them to feel heard and safe. This particular workshop focused on how to do just that, with teens chiming in about how frustrating ageism can be, and how it hinders them from opening up to the adults in their lives about their struggles. Even though the landscape of adolescence has changed so much since I was a teen in the nineties and early aughts, I know my teen self would have agreed with them. It was hard to talk to the adults in my life. Many of them didn’t take my struggles or my relationship seriously and that, in part, was why I ended up staying in an unhealthy relationship for so long. I didn’t feel heard.

In another workshop I attended, this one led by the Jon Torre Safe At Home Foundation and Margaret’s Place, we did various activities to get to the heart of what consent is and isn’t, from creating our own individual relationship Bill of Rights, to analyzing skits performed by the workshop leaders that highlight all the gray areas where consent is concerned. The teens in the room were quick to recognize situations that were unsafe and were so incredibly concise about what is and is not okay in a relationship. To me, this was yet another example of how youth already know the situation on the ground: they just need the support from the adults in their lives to help them stay safe. The conference zeroed in on the importance of youth agency and autonomy, which is part of why Day One’s work is so powerful. When youth feel seen and heard—when the adults in their lives hold space for them—they’re able to safely explore their options and move closer to getting out of (or avoiding) unhealthy situations.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on intersectionality. I was so impressed by how ahead of the times the youth at this conference were. As adults, we have so much to learn from their open-mindedness, big hearts, and clear understanding of the importance of every person to be valued and respected for who they choose to be. There was also a real understanding of how the different parts of us (race, gender, class, sexuality, immigration status, etc.) must be considered whenever someone tries to hold space for us. This makes it easier for adults to help youth identify the goals they have and determine the steps to get there. It’s also enormously helpful when aiding a youth in coming up with a safety plan.

I wish every young person and every adult who serves them could have gone to this conference. I can’t help but think of all the suffering I might have avoided if I’d been more aware of my rights in a relationship. When I was in my bad romance, I knew I wasn’t in a safe space (you(th) really DO already know), but I didn’t have the tools to get out.

A few quick takeaways for adults and teens alike:

What is on your Bill of Rights for a relationship, be it romantic or otherwise?

What’s your definition of consent?

Do you have a safety plan? What is it? How can the adults in your life help you implement that?

What is the truth you have to speak right now?

I look forward to exploring all of these issues more in the coming month here on the Day One blog, where I’ll be talking about teen dating violence and how to #TellThemNow. If there’s anything you’d like me to specifically cover, don’t hesitate to contact me via my website.

Until then, I hope you’ll be able to join the conversation this month using the hashtag #tellthemnow. For youth: what would you like to tell the adults in your life? Maybe it’s something you’re too afraid to say right now. Or, if you’re an adult, what do you wish you could have told your parents, teachers, or other adults?

I’m sending out wishes that this month you will choose yourself and see that the most important person in any relationship is yourself. Be gentle.

Bio

When Heather Demetrios isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her critically acclaimed novels include I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, and the Dark Caravan trilogy (Exquisite Captive, Blood Passage, Freedom’s Slave). She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of epistolary essays, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love, which features letters from real teens. Find out more at www.heatherdemetrios.com. Tweet to @HDemetrios.