Center teaches teens how to avoid abusive dates

March 13, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Two teen-agers meet and decide to go steady. Occasionally, the boy gives his girlfriend something passionate but unwelcome: a slap across the face.

"Before a class graduates from high school, one out of four girls will have been in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship," said Judy Clancy, director of community outreach for the county's Domestic Violence Center. "It's an increasing trend" across the country.

Concerned about the alarming number of teen-age girls being abused by their boyfriends, the Hammond High School PTSA tomorrow night will hold a program on how teens can have healthy relationships and avoid being abused.

The program will feature drama students performing skits, a 17-minute video, "Heart on a Chain," and a question-and-answer session.

During the program, which is open to anyone, Ms. Clancy will discuss abuse among dating teen-agers and talk about the warning signs of an abusive relationship.

Mary Ann Crawford, Hammond's PTSA vice president, said she organized the program after learning how important relationships are to teen-agers, and reading about abuse among young people.

"Some guys seem to think if you can't control your womanyou're not much of a man," Mrs. Crawford said.

Ms. Clancy, of the Domestic Violence Center, said the problem of teen dating violence only recently has begun to gain widespread attention.

Though specific statistics are rare, she estimated that 15 to 25 percent of girls will have been abused by the time they graduate from high school.

"Abusive relationships are really about power and control," Ms. Clancy said. "[It's] when one person tries to control the other person."

"Some [boys] are modeling what they have experienced at home," she added. "Some of them are going overboard defining themselves as male, macho. And some of them are just very insecure and so afraid they'll lose their girlfriend."

Although some girls abuse their boyfriends, boys are usually the abusers, she said.

That abuse may include physical violence or emotional abuse, which can involve falsely accusing a girl of infidelity, criticizing her appearance or demanding to know her whereabouts.

"In an abusive relationship, the boy is very jealous and possessive and at first that feels flattering to the girl," Ms. Clancy said. "She thinks, 'Oh he really loves me.' Then, after a while, it starts feeling very scary and suffocating."

Many abused girls don't tell their parents because they fear betraying their boyfriend or losing their friends, or because they worry that their parents would become too strict.

"Girls do everything they can do to cover it up or make up a story how it happened. They say, 'We were tossing around the football and it hit me in the nose,' " Ms. Clancy said.

Carole Sousa, coordinator of the Dating Violence Intervention Project in Cambridge, Mass., said such a pattern is typical in abusive teen relationships.

"It can be more subtle and hard for someone on the outside, even a parent, to understand what's going on," said Ms. Sousa, whose center annually sees about 5,000 teens who have been physically abused or sexually assaulted.

Locally, Ms. Clancy and other workers at the Domestic Violence Center visit high schools and tell students the warning signs of an abusive relationship.

"If you are hit once, chances are very good you'll be hit again," she tells the girls. "We tell the girl to be wary of any guy who is extremely jealous and possessive."

Another warning sign is "if a girl is afraid to express her opinion or values, because she fears he'll get mad."

Workers from the center also give students their 24-hour hot line number, 997-2272, so students can call and talk confidentially.

Many teen-agers are just beginning to focus on the issue of abuse.

Sixteen-year-old Shanna Johnson, a sophomore at Atholton High School, has been dating since her freshman year, usually going on group dates with friends.

Shanna said that she and her friends have not experienced abuse while on dates, but some have found themselves in stressful situations.

"I've heard guys have pressured girls for certain things and to do certain things," she said.

Aware of the hazards that such pressure can present, Debbie Ross, co-owner of Fighting Chance Inc., an independently operated women's self-defense program in Columbia, offers self-defense seminars for teens. The next one will be May 21.

"Dating [sometimes] becomes almost a 'you owe it to me' situation," she said. "I want them to go to the prom and be the prettiest thing there and come home that way."

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