13-year-old Aimee first began dating, she expected great things: "I'd
have someone I could always count on, and everyone -- all the girls --
would look up to me because I had a boyfriend," Aimee explains. What
she didn't expect were her boyfriend's constant phone calls to check up on
her, the restrictions he placed on her activities, the yelling and,
eventually, the threats.
getting worse," Aimee reports in a soft voice. (Names of students
and parents have been changed.) "The other day he grabbed my arm
and squeezed it real hard." Aimee, a 7th grade student at
to recent classroom surveys in
support groups for young women were introduced in 1988 in response to
concern among high school counselors that some girls' boyfriends were
battering them. Three years later, in 1991, TDVP extended its programs to
boys as well. Since then, the project has grown to include 18 peer groups
in seven high schools and four middle schools in
Thursday morning at
Aimee describes her unsuccessful attempt to break up with her boyfriend.
"He put a big guilt trip on me," she says. "He got a real
sorry look on his face like he would cry." Aimee adds that her
boyfriend yells at her on the phone but gets angry if she raises her
you go to a show, do you both decide what to see, or does he make all the
decisions?" asks Sarah, another student.
makes the decisions," Aimee answers.
sounds like he's in control," Sarah says. The other girls agree.
Bartels, the counselor leading today's meeting, jumps into the discussion.
"The group is picking up that there is inequality in the
relationship," she points out. "It's hard to think about
breaking up, but keep in mind that you have to put safety first. You may
need safety plans and some adults to get involved."
the session wraps up, Bartels explains that she frequently reviews all the
options, including legal ones, available to young women for their
protection. "There's no way to predict which abuser will reach the
level of being dangerous," she says. Bartels points out that abuse
comes in many forms: verbal, physical, sexual. Domination and control,
berating remarks, intense jealousy and possessiveness are all forms of
mental and emotional abuse that can escalate into violence.
but not all, violence in dating relationships is perpetrated by males
against females, according to Barri Rosenbluth, a social worker and
coordinator of the TDVP. Gays and lesbians may also experience abuse in
their relationships. During the course of the program, counselors lead
young men and women through role-plays and other activities to help them
recognize the signs and cycles of abuse, as well as what constitutes a
the dialogue at
Lesson in Respect
late in the school year, and the girls had attended regularly. Rosenbluth
was sure they knew everything she had taught them about the cycle of
violence and the warning signs of a batterer. But many of the girls
remained in abusive relationships.
week their stories got worse," Rosenbluth recalls. "One girl's
boyfriend threatened her with a knife. She talked about giving up her
plans to go to college because he didn't want her to go. I was at a loss.
I kept asking myself, 'Why are these girls still with these guys?'"
of the last group meetings, Rosenbluth says, she decided to take a survey.
She asked the group to raise their hands if they thought that all men were
abusive. Every hand went up.
was one of those 'light bulb' experiences," Rosenbluth says. "It
made sense: If you think all men are the same, you're going to stay with
the one you're committed to."
says this eye-opening incident brought the program's objectives more
clearly into focus. "Up to that point, my goal had been to make the
girls more knowledgeable about abuse," Rosenbluth says. "We
started adding a lot more about what a healthy relationship is. We focused
more on what to look for and expect than on what to avoid."
point out that teenagers in the program typically can identify many forms
of abuse but struggle to come up with examples of respectful behavior,
such as listening to and supporting their partners. TDVP staff hope that
guided exercises in the program will help students develop a repertoire of
respectful habits that they can draw on, as well as expect from the dating
partners they choose. They also hope these skills will carry over to
students' adult relationships and help prevent domestic violence.
a positive spin on TDVP's function also encourages participation.
Teenagers are reluctant to join a group for victims or abusers, Rosenbluth
explains. "We don't promote either group that way," she says.
"We promote it as a men's group or a women's group for people who
want to improve their dating relationships."
for the program are hung around the school at the beginning of the year,
and students join voluntarily. Some are referred by counselors or friends.
To encourage participation, sessions are held at school during class
hours, one period a week.
unrealistic for human beings to fit into those boxes," says
Rosenbluth. "Boys are not powerful and in control all the time, and
girls do have a need to exert their own power. So they get into situations
they're not equipped to handle. If a girl feels in danger, she doesn't
have the skills to set limits or protect herself. If a boy is feeling
insecure or in some way disempowered, he doesn't know how to handle that
in a nonviolent way."
gender stereotypes are a double-edged sword, Rosenbluth adds. "Not
only are boys learning they're to be in control, but girls are learning
that boys are supposed to be in control. So girls are looking for boys who
are in control. There is teamwork going on. People think the boys are the
bad guys, and it's not like that. We're all in this together."
Wednesday morning not far from
all of the guys have problems with violence and how to control their
anger," says counselor Mark Viator.
root of these problems, Barri Rosenbluth believes, is the socialization of
boys that typically equates the expression of feelings with weakness.
"It starts with boys being afraid of older men who make fun of them.
The little boy cries, and he's ridiculed by the older man. Or he gets into
a fight and loses. He goes home and his father says, 'You're a wimp.' You
have young men learning to treat each other in the same way," she
says, adding that anger and violence become the only viable emotional
explains that because perceptions of gender roles can be deeply ingrained,
trying to curb boys' violent or controlling behaviors is often "one
step forward and two steps back." One week,
when the peer response means everything, Viator adds. "If I say, 'You
shouldn't do that,' they're not going to listen. But if a friend says,
'No, man, you can't do that,' that has a lot of weight."
cannot ignore the reality that sex is a part of many abusive
relationships, Rosenbluth says. Many girls "are having forced sex,
they're having unsafe sex, and they're somehow thinking they're bad for
letting it happen to them," she says. The program's aim is to help
both young women and young men take control of their sexuality and
recognize that everyone has the right to say "no" to sex at any
and female groups alike, Rosenbluth says, discussions often reveal a
consensus that forced sex is OK in certain circumstances: if the girl is
considered a "slut" or if she has had sex with the boy before or
if she is drunk. Counselors press students to justify their views.
boys' groups, according to Rosenbluth, challenging students this way leads
invariably to one person's saying, "I don't want to have sex with
someone unless they want to have sex with me" or "That's rape,
even if she's drunk." These responses stir up controversy and force
group members to examine their attitudes about forced sex.
why it's so important to open that dialogue and give them a chance to say
what they really think without judging it," Rosenbluth says.
"Otherwise, they'll never disclose their real feelings."
sunny morning, the Bowie High women's group joins the men's group from
Crockett High in a counselor workroom. The 12 teenagers gathered have
loosened up over doughnuts and juice, but some still look a bit nervous.
To get things started, counselor Dana Bartels asks the participants to
introduce themselves and name a quality they bring to a dating
and trust," says James.
bring romance," says Lizette. "How's that?"
laughs and seems to relax. For the next 90 minutes, the young men and
women alternate asking and answering questions they have prepared in their
group sessions a week earlier: "Why do some guys get so
jealous?" the girls want to know. "Why do some guys hit
girls?" "What would you do if you got a girl pregnant, and why
do some guys deny they're the father?"
boys have other questions: "Why would a girl ignore you when she
knows you care about her?" "Why would a girl be hung up on a guy
who doesn't have a heart?" "If a guy cares for you, how do you
like him to show it?"
students listen closely to one another and seem surprised that they agree
on many issues. The wrap-up pizza lunch has already arrived when Laura
poses the final question: "I want to know why some guys are so
controlling," she blurts out. "My boyfriend didn't want me to
come here today because other guys would be here."
overprotective," Julius says. "He shouldn't be like a guardian
he doesn't want you to do something, do you talk it out?" asks James.
"Do you ever put your foot down?"
clutches a sofa pillow and looks down. "I'm the real sensitive
type," she says. "He knocks me down and I'm like, 'I'm
will walk all over you if you let them," Julius says gently.
"You shouldn't let that happen."
TDVP counselors, Julius' and James' ability to recognize the imbalance of
power in Laura's relationship, and their instinct to offer support, signal
a measure of success: Attitudes can change; respectful behaviors can be
many boys in the program seem to be "on the fence" about
aggressive acts such as yelling at or hitting girls, she says. The
behaviors may seem normal to them because they have seen their fathers
abuse their mothers, or they have heard their friends brag about slapping
girlfriends around, but they may also feel confusion about such
these boys, Rosenbluth says, the group dynamic can effect dramatic changes
in attitude and behavior. "A main developmental goal for boys at that
age is to be strong," she says. "If one guy in the group starts
to equate violence with weakness rather than with strength, then it
becomes easy to stop violence."
a sophomore who has participated in the program for a year, sees himself
as an example of the program's positive impact. He recalls the way he used
to threaten his girlfriend when he thought she was flirting with another
guy. "I'd say, 'I'm going to mess that guy up, then come back to
you.' I was being rough. I'd get a stick and hit the ground with it."
Robert says he has different ideas about how to handle problems with a
girlfriend. "If there's a problem in your relationship, you should
talk to the person and get their story and cool down. Once you start being
rough, they don't feel secure any more."
the joint Crockett-Bowie session, several girls talk about how
"group," as they call it, has changed their lives. Lizette, a
group, Lizette learned to adjust her attitudes. "It's a whole
different perspective that I see relationships from now," she says.
"It's not just my job to make the guy happy. Now I know I can have
program equipped Aimee with a new set of expectations for relationships.
"I want a guy who respects me and trusts me and cares for me. I want
someone who likes me for what I am," Aimee says. "I know what I
want. If it's not going to happen, I break up."
it had not been for this group, I don't know what we would have
done," says Judy West, Aimee's mother. "[Aimee has] finally
started to have inner peace, and it's giving her strength to say things
like, 'I control my life.' She knows she deserves good things to happen to
M. Harrison, a former teacher, is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis,
teenagers in abusive relationships can be difficult because the warning
signs are not always easy to detect, according to Barrie Levy, a
psychotherapist and author of three books on the topic. The most obvious
indicator of abuse is the evidence of injuries that the victim cannot
subtle signs to watch for are possessive and controlling behavior.
"If as soon as that bell rings, a boy is by the door and his
girlfriend has to walk to her next class with him, and if he really glares
at her if she stops to talk to a friend, that's a sign of trouble,"
says Levy. "Also, any kind of checking up on her, following her,
restricting her -- jealous comments about her friends or anything that
takes her attention away from him." Changes in a student's behavior
-- for example, withdrawal from friends and extracurricular pursuits or
sudden changes in mood, personality or appearance -- can also signal a
adult who suspects a teen relationship is abusive should approach each
partner separately. And don't expect either partner to readily admit
there's something wrong, Levy says. "In any kind of domestic violence
situation, a victim is apt to be very protective and defensive about her
boyfriend or her husband and the relationship."
cautions adults not to challenge the relationship but to focus on the
victim's safety. A teacher might say, "Maybe you love him, but I can
see you're being hurt," then provide information on how and where to
teachers witness a boyfriend hitting or pushing his girlfriend on school
grounds, they should create consequences for the behavior. "With no
ambiguity, he needs to be confronted and told that what he's doing is not
OK. You can't hit your girlfriend any more than you can hit anybody else
in school," Levy says.
suggests turning to the nearest domestic violence center to seek help for
both the abuser and the victim. While the center may not have programs in
place for teenagers, the staff should be able to provide crisis counseling
and help find available resources for dealing with the problem.
coaches, principals and teachers can be powerful role models, Rosenbluth
points out, but too often they remain silent on issues of abuse. "If
more men would stand up and say 'Hitting girls is a sign of weakness,'
that would help a lot," she says.
can begin laying the groundwork for healthy, respectful relationships even
in elementary school, according to Rosenbluth. "When a boy is
taunting a girl in some way, we say 'Boys will be boys' or 'He's just
doing it because he likes you.'" But this sends the message that, if
someone likes you, "they annoy you, treat you disrespectfully, harass
you, pull your hair, whatever," Rosenbluth says, adding that teachers
shouldn't ignore such harassment. "When it goes untreated, this
behavior gets worse."