How To Help Teens Recognize Dating Violence

Guests

Keisha Ormond, program coordinator, Community Advocacy Program
Lawrence Harmon, columnist, The Boston Globe

Teenagers are often poorly equipped to deal with violence in romantic relationships. Many teens become overwhelmed by conflicting emotions or confuse controlling behavior with affection. And teens in violent relationships are often reluctant to tell adults who can help.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In high school, romantic relationships can define kids' identity and social status, and these early relationships can become very dramatic. Too often, they can also become abusive. Girls are usually the victims.

They can confuse controlling behavior with signs of affection and are often reluctant to tell their parents, teachers, even their friends when emotions escalate to violence.

Many adults have difficulties with such behavior too, but often parents don't talk with their teenagers about what to look out for and what to do if it happens. Kids, parents, has this been a problem for you? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's start with a caller. This is Natalie(ph), and Natalie's on the line with us from Jacksonville.

NATALIE: Yes, hi. I was just calling. I had such a similar situation as the one you said earlier and just being in a relationship in high school, kind of striving for that ultimate relationship with a football player, coming from a drama/theater background and really desiring it.

I came from an abused background as a child, and so I think I just seek that attention. I sought out what would make me look, appear, you know, above and beyond all of my peers, kind of that goal that I was reaching for through school and more importantly just really putting all of my time into that more than anything else.

And I think once that goal was achieved, I think it realized, like, oh wow, the chase was much better than the catch. But for three years, all through the end of my high school year and into college, I allowed myself to be in this relationship and just - it became physically abusive and it just became something that I think I thought I deserved, considering that I had dealt with it within the family and also within my school in a teacher-student circumstance.

And so I think it ended up being, like, well, I need to reach a social status, but also I just want to be loved on, and I want to be accepted, and I kind of - I just want to be noticed. And I think that's mostly what it was. And it just didn't seem wrong because it seemed like, well, I deserved it, haven't I always deserved this even as a child.

And so I think it just all kind of rolls into that and thus, you know, spiraling starts to begin and being in college and being away and trying to figure out wow, this kind of sucks, this isn't really, you know, the direction that I want my life to go. But after that, relationships just continued to be the same.

CONAN: In high school, were you able to tell anybody?

NATALIE: No, nuh-uh, I grew up in a really small town. It was kind of one of those things where things happen and things aren't said, or you say things but then everyone knows. Or it's just - you kind of learn, I guess, in the town that I grew up in, like, secrecy is the key to keeping everyone happy and making it look like it's still kind of that small, hometown feeling.

And I just - I guess I just didn't have the comfort of talking to my parents about it or really sharing it with anybody in particular. It just wasn't - it just didn't seem at that time an option. I think there was more fear than anything. And I think I just kind of let that fear take over.

And I think hiding seemed like the best option and kind of stuffing those kind of feelings or emotions and things that were occurring, stuffing them inside just seemed like the better deal, like, well, I don't have to deal with it, and I can move on and get accepted and go to college and, you know, find myself but still be trapped in this relationship and almost feel like there is no way to escape.

CONAN: Did you finally get some help?

NATALIE: I did, yeah. I started - I was actually living out west, in Colorado, and sought some counseling while I was out there working, actually for a camp, and realized just the effect when I had people surrounding me that really truly did care about me and my well-being and realizing, like, hey, that wasn't okay and living my life that way, kind of being entrapped by relationships and by abuse, is not the normal way to just live life.

CONAN: Natalie, thanks very much for sharing your story.

NATALIE: Yeah, you're welcome.

CONAN: And I hope things work out better for you.

NATALIE: Thank you so very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Joining us now is Keisha Ormond, program director for the Community Advocacy Program in Boston, which provides domestic violence services for victims and their families there, and she joins us from member station WBUR. Nice to have you with us today.

KEISHA ORMOND: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I know you talked with a lot of kids, and does Natalie's story sound familiar?

NATALIE: It does in many ways, and one thing that struck me about her story was her talking about how she kept it a secret, how she didn't tell people what was going on. And I think that there's a great deal of shame associated with these types of relationships. And so therefore teens don't share the information with a trusted adult, a parent, a teacher. And the people who they mainly disclose it to or who happen to see it are their peers, their friends.

CONAN: And once there's shame, the behavior continues, but you think somehow you deserve it because, well, it gets self-reinforcing. It gets very strange.

ORMOND: Absolutely. I think the person who is perpetrating the abusive behavior, whatever their soundtrack is, begins to play inside the victim's head. So if they're saying things like you'll never find anyone else, or nobody cares about you like I do, or things of that nature, that the victim also begins to believe it and buy into that and believe that maybe I'll never find anybody else, or maybe this is the only person that I'll ever find to love me and care about me.

And, you know, perpetrators also use or exploit a person's vulnerabilities, and so if they have - if they were adopted or something like that, the victim was adopted, the perpetrator will say you don't even have a real family. I'm the only family you have. And those kinds of themes begin to play, you know, on the victims' emotions and compels them to stay in the relationship.

CONAN: Do we know how widespread this is?

ORMOND: Nationally, there are surveys that indicate that it's approximately one in three teens that have been in a relationship where there is abuse.

CONAN: And that's verbal, emotional, physical, all kinds of abuse?

ORMOND: That is correct.

CONAN: And that's based, as I understand it, on self-reporting. That's pretty squishy.

ORMOND: Yeah, it is.

CONAN: So it could be a lot more than that. And again, most of those victims are girls, but some are boys too.

ORMOND: Absolutely, so predominately there are girls disclosing the abuse, and even in my experience it's been mainly girls, but that doesn't mean that boys are not being victimized as well. I just think that there is less social acceptance of boys being victims of violence from girls.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sara(ph) in Portland: You mentioned the difficulty teens can have in identifying physical abuse. I wonder if you could speak to the more subtle ways abuse can appear in relationships like verbal and emotional abuse. How can teens get better at identifying those?

ORMOND: Well, I always encourage teens to really think about or look for the warning signs that don't really cause you concern, necessarily, at first. But those are the things that lead to really serious controlling and violent behaviors. And it could be as simple as the person just wanting to monopolize your time.

And a teen may think: Oh, this person really cares about me, they want to see me, they want to, you know, spend time with me, when really their goal is to get you isolated, to keep you away from your friends, to keep you away from your family and to have them being kind of the sole person that you're spending your time with.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kim(ph), and Kim's on the line with us from Reno.

KIM: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KIM: How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ORMOND: Hi, Kim.

KIM: How are you?

ORMOND: Good, how are you?

KIM: I'm wonderful, thanks.

CONAN: And what's your story?

KIM: My story is that it was really difficult to spot an abusive relationship in my teens that I got involved with, and it was a Vietnam vet's son. And he had been abused for many years in his family by his father, who was in four tours of Vietnam.

And I had no idea what that meant. And so I kind of thought I could fix him, and I thought I could, you know, always make everything better. And I think that's what kept me in the relationship for so many years because you think that, well, there's something that I'm doing. And that's the self - kind of destructive thing that you were talking about a minute ago.

And you always look at, well, it's my problem. And so I stayed in it off and on, left him a couple of times and then ended up having a child with him, and he doesn't support his child, and he can't be found anywhere. And, you know, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of help, because I know there's a lot of people like that who are on the streets, that suffer from post-traumatic stress from wars, or their children.

And basically it's not an easy thing to spot.

CONAN: And had you been older and more experienced, you might have been a little bit more skeptical.

KIM: Oh, absolutely, absolutely, because it was kind of a good time when I met him, and he, you know, was doing really well, seemed to be going well and was like the life-of-the-party kind of person. And it just gradually got worse, the abuse.

CONAN: And how's your child doing?

KIM: My child is 15, yeah, and he hasn't been a part of his life ever and doesn't pay any support, doesn't do anything. And his father's marriage dissolved many, many years ago. And so it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of hope, although I do have some support around me, which keeps me going. But I know I would just put a caution flag out for anybody who's thinking about getting involved with, you know, kind of people that maybe have been in the war for a long, long time.

You know, I know there is some services available for counseling, but maybe a lot of people don't ask for that.

CONAN: Caution might be a better advice. People who have been in war, some of them are fine, some better than fine. But Kim, thanks very much for the phone call, and we appreciate your sharing your story.

Keisha Ormond, as she's telling that, clearly somebody with a little bit more experience kids, obviously this is their first or second, maybe their third relationship dating, they don't have that kind of practical experience, and for that matter there's an awful lot of adults who have problems with these kinds of things too.

ORMOND: That is correct. You know, it is their first experiences, and they're taking their cues from us and from society at large. And I think it's hard to find good representations of healthy relationships that you see in the media or that you actually respect and look up to or see as people they want to be like.

And I think those relationships are not always occurring within the home as well, and nor are conversations being had with them about what constitutes a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy relationship.

CONAN: We're talking about teens, dating and abuse. Kids, parents, has this been a problem for you? If so, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. In a few minutes we'll talk with a father of three daughters who wants every dad to have difficult conversations with their girls. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. [Soundbite of music´┐Ż] [End of Soundbite]

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The brutal of a young woman in Boston, allegedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, has refocused attention on the problem of violence in teen relationships.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but one government survey in 2009 showed that as many as 10 percent of high school students said they'd been hit, slapped or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the previous year. Victims, more often than not, are girls.

Of course, that does not include verbal or emotional abuse. Kids, parents, if this has been a problem for you, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Keisha Ormond is our guest, program director at the - excuse me, program coordinator for the Community Advocacy Program, an organization in Boston that provides domestic violence services for victims and their families. And let's get Terry(ph) on the line, Terry with us from Littleton, Colorado.

TERRY: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Terry.

TERRY: I just wanted to make the point that the abuse isn't always boys on girls. I lost my son to suicide this spring that I actually count as abuse. He was dating a girl and trying to break up with her, and we found a chat log after his suicide that showed that she was just kind of nipping at him and didn't want to break up and had told him that she was pregnant. And as far we know, she wasn't really pregnant, she just was trying to find a way to hold him, which is this emotional kind of abuse and not being able to manage that kind of thing.

Long story short, he said five times in a two-hour period: I feel like I'm painted into a corner and I can't get out, and I'm going to have to kill myself. And this girl did nothing to stop him, alert us, alert the police. And so we lost our son.

CONAN: I'm so sorry for your loss, Terry. It must have been an awful, awful thing. As you look back on it, were there - and I don't mean to suggest in any way that this was your fault - but were there signs that you now say, oh, I should have picked up?

TERRY: Quite the opposite. He had been - and he was an emotional kid and had been kind of reeling from a breakup two years before, but this time, he seemed totally in control of the situation, had filled out a job application, did not act at all suicidal. And so, you know, it's sort of one of again, that example of their brains are really not developed to sort of understand that there's light at the end of a tunnel, and they see a situation and can't see past it.

And it was a very impulsive an impulsive act and he completed on, you know, a first attempt, unfortunately.

CONAN: I'm so sorry again for your loss, Terry, but thank you for sharing the story.

TERRY: Certainly, thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, Keisha Ormond, when you talk to kids, boys, it must be a special problem. Yes, they're probably the minority or at least the minority who talk about it, but it must be a special problem.

ORMOND: Yeah, it is. I think that boys are less likely to disclose the abuse because of the stigma associated with them being abused by, many times, a girl in a relationship. And, you know, it confronts their ideas of masculinity, of them feeling like they can control the situation, and so they don't necessarily reach out for help.

And I don't think that boys always identify controlling behaviors that girls perpetrate oftentimes as teen dating violence.

CONAN: There is also the mother saying, look, there was nothing we could see from this, it seemed to be a good relationship. I know the situation with the murder in Boston was - the murder in Boston, it seemed like the relationship there was going very well.

ORMOND: You know what I wanted to ask before she hung up was I know she said she didn't see any signs in her son, but I wanted to ask if she saw any signs that the girl that he was with was being abusive to him.

CONAN: And that's sometimes hard to pick up on.

ORMOND: It is, and I think that it involves really getting in your kid's business, making their business your business. And I think with, you know, cell phones being as popular as they are, what I recognize is that it offers teenagers a great deal of freedom. And they are having conversations in another language, pretty much, and talking about and doing all kinds of things that their parents are not privy to because they have a certain amount of freedom, and parents are not as involved as they could be.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Jessica(ph), and Jessica's on the line with us from Kalamazoo.

JESSICA: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JESSICA: I wanted to share my story. I was dating someone who was very verbally abusive all through high school, from when I was 13 to when I was 17. And it was a very slow progression. But his older sister, actually, was the one that was finally able to talk me out of the relationship, basically.

CONAN: His older sister?

JESSICA: Well, she saw what was happening. I mean, she was close to me and she understood her brother better than most people did. And so she was able to talk to me in a way that didn't make me feel like she was just another adult telling me I was making bad decisions, you know.

I was at that very moody age where I didn't want anybody telling me what to do, and regardless how unhappy I was, I just wanted to - I wanted to show my independence. And she really was able to work with that and convince me that I was unhappy at the same time.

CONAN: And how did you break it off, then, with her brother?

JESSICA: It was kind of abrupt. It was a moment where I just decided that I was done with it and I couldn't do it anymore. And so I invited him over to her house, actually. And we - I just broke it off and he threw a fit, and he punched his windshield out of his car, actually, and so it was kind of a tense moment.

But after that, I was totally done and I broke it cleanly, and I'm so much better off now. And it did amazing things for my confidence and just my ability to cope with things like that. You know, I feel much stronger now, and I can't even regret it.

CONAN: And you understand how lucky you are that there was somebody who was able to reach out to you and explain to you in a way that you could get through what was actually going on.

JESSICA: Absolutely, and she was really the only person who get through to me, and my own parents, like, I mean, they were my parents. I didn't want to listen to them. You know, I was 15 years old, 16, you know, and it was so great that she was there. And it was just kind of strange that it was his own older sister that helped me break it off with him.

CONAN: Well, Jessica, thank you very much, and we're glad to hear a story with a happy ending here.

JESSICA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Let's go next to the studio at the Boston Globe, where Lawrence Harmon joins us. He's a columnist there, the father of three daughters. In a recent column, he told fathers that they need to talk more with their daughters about these issues, and it's nice to have you with us today.

LAWRENCE HARMON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And the story we just heard illustrates how difficult it is. Teenagers sometimes barely talk with their parents, much less tell them what's really going on.

HARMON: Right, or girls particularly are inclined more, I think, to speak with their moms than their dads. So I think it'll take a little effort on the part of dads to talk about their daughters' dating life.

CONAN: You're the father of three daughters.

HARMON: I am.

CONAN: Did you tell them to watch out for abusive relationships when they started dating?

HARMON: You know, it's funny. I was so safety-oriented with my daughters, but I think almost all of my efforts went into teaching them, you know, how to ride the T - the MBTA, the public transit safely.

CONAN: The subway there, yeah.

HARMON: Right, how to - you know, how to sort of present themselves, you know, on the street so that there would be less likelihood that a stranger might accost them. But frankly, I don't think I did speak very much with them about the potential for dating violence. I regret that, actually.

CONAN: And I was going to ask. I know you do regret it because this case in Boston raises the question that parents, not just fathers but mothers, too, miss all kinds of signs.

HARMON: They do, and I think there are some fairly obvious signs that parents can at least, you know, at least be on the lookout for, the most obvious perhaps being daughters who are actually terrified not to respond to their boyfriends' frequent texts or phone calls, that they always seem like they're walking on eggshells as far as their boyfriends are concerned. That's not a good sign.

You know, the domestic violence experts, almost all of them point to that phenomenon as something that might require intervention, or that does require intervention.

There are others, you know, where girls seem to feel solely responsible for their boyfriends' feelings. It's not a great sign. Certainly insults, things of that nature, if you hear those, that's not a good sign, nor would be giving up activities that girls generally like but that don't fit into their schedule with their boyfriends.

These are signs that they may be heading for or already in an abusive relationship.

CONAN: And those are important things if you have daughters to tell them about. You say the old model of the dad glowering on the porch with the shotgun at the ready, that's not going to work in this day and age, if it ever worked.

HARMON: I wish it did. I tried it, actually, with my first daughter. She just thought I was acting like a complete fool. But I think most fathers do feel this, you know, very profound need to protect their daughters. And, you know, this kind of low consciousness approach sometimes is the first thing that occurs to you, certainly the easiest thing to do. It's easier than, you know, trying to intimidate a boyfriend is a lot easier than talking to your daughter. But I don't think it works. I wouldn't recommend it.

CONAN: And I want to ask you a question, and I want Keisha Ormond to respond as well also there up in Boston. You're talking about talking with your daughter - who is talking with the boys.

HARMON: Is that me or Keisha?

CONAN: Well, you start first.

HARMON: Oh, OK. I have - most of the criticism that I got about this particular column, which was really a column that was written specifically about fathers and daughters, was on just that topic. Why the heck aren't you urging fathers to talk to their sons about this and, you know, how to be gentleman. It's a perfectly legitimate point in a sense, but I have a feeling that, you know, not exclusively, but for the most part, boys who end up doing this are probably not the sons of, you know, particularly sensitive or insightful parents to begin with.

From a defensive point of view, in terms of the goal is protect your daughter, I think it's probably best to go in that direct route and open up the dialogue with the girls. Boys who show these - this type of abuse, I'm not too convinced they could be, you know, that they could - would have an aha moment with a discussion with a parent.

CONAN: Keisha Ormond, what do you think?

ORMOND: Well, I think that from our perspective we view our work with teens as prevention work. And the goal is to prevent teens from getting involved in relationship and or staying in relationships where there is violence. And I do think that it's important for parents overall to be talking to their children. And not just about this topic - we'll be talking about teenage violence today - but really talking about what a healthy relationship looks like and what an unhealthy relationship looks like and trying to find out who they are talking to, who they are dating, meeting that person.

And I think that boys, you know what, in my experience, when we talk to - we've done groups with only girls and then we've also done groups that are unisex, with boys and girls, in the schools. And the boys are pretty open and have disclosed different types of abusive behaviors to me, and we talk about those things. So I think that they're open and willing to have that conversation. The problem is they don't want to be viewed as an abuser, and no one wants that label. And so I'm really cautious about how I deliver my message and how I engage them around this topic, because they are concerned about what people will think and say about them if they admit that they have done these things.

CONAN: Keisha Ormond, program coordinator for the Community Advocacy Program in Boston. Also with us, Boston Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon, who wrote a piece "Fathers Talk Safety with Girls." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Ray on the line, Ray with us from Tulsa.

RAY: Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

RAY: I'm just calling in to say that I used to be an abuser. And it's a vi - you written an article that is an absolute and necessary thing because fathers should definitely be talking to girls about guys like I used to be, because we were dangerous and we work behind the lines. We observe and manipulate and we get in behind the defenses. We...

CONAN: Where did you learn how to do that, Ray?

RAY: I think it was a matter of protection. As a child, I had to protect myself mentally and emotionally from the abuse that I was suffering. And I think that as time went on, I began to transfer that lack of control that I felt in my life to controlling other people. And I find that that's the most difficult thing for me even now at 37, is when I find myself trying to control or manipulate the situation around me in order to maintain things so that there's no surprises and there's no - nothing to fear.

I find myself doing that and I stop. And I ask my wife to tell me, because she's a normal person. And I ask her to tell me what am I doing wrong here and how would you deal with this if, you know, how would you deal with this? And I have to say her advice has been extremely helpful in normalizing the way I think because I know that I do not think as a normal person.

CONAN: It sounds like you're a lucky man, Ray.

RAY: Yeah. Between God and my wife, I'm absolutely, absolutely blessed.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call and sharing your story. And we hope things work out for you.

RAY: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Lawrence Harmon, I wanted to get back to a point we're talking with Keisha Ormond about before. Sometimes, as in this murder case in Boston, it looks like everything is going fine and there - don't seem to be any warning signs.

HARMON: That's, well, that's exactly right. And why I really appreciate that previous caller. Abusers, frankly, are extremely good at hiding their attentions and their abuse from the families of the girls they're dating. We've seen that over and over again. And oftentimes, you know, in this particular case, the father of Lauren Astley, the girl who was slain in Wayland, Massachusetts, said that he had an extremely close relationship with the young man who's accused of the crime, that he had, in some ways, you know, over the course of three or four years - they've dated a long time - become a member of the family. And in that sense, you know, I think, you know, you look at your daughter's boyfriend in a way that you might look at your own kids, which is with an inability to see their flaws. So I think people are going to have to be quite aware of that phenomenon as well.

CONAN: It is rare, but it does happen. Sadly, abuse happens more often. Lawrence Harmon, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

HARMON: Thank you.

CONAN: Lawrence Harmon is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Keisha Ormond, we appreciate your joining us as well.

ORMOND: Thank you.

CONAN: Keisha Ormond with the Community Advocacy Program. She joined us from our member station WBUR in Boston.

Coming up next, two new studies show that a pill, a daily pill, can prevent - protect you from HIV. How does it work? Who should get it? Dr. Anthony Fauci with the National Institutes of Health will join us next to answer your questions. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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