Written By: Dafni Suresh, YIP Natick Alum
In honor of February being Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM), The Foundation for Metrowest is highlighting an organization that has worked on prevention and education about teen dating violence.
I learned about REACH through a grant proposal during a Youth in Philanthropy meeting and I felt an immediate connection with the work and message of the organization. According to their mission statement, REACH works with survivors of domestic violence to foster safety and support while engaging communities to promote healthy relationships. They have many programs that can support people in these situations including a 24/7 hotline, shelter, community advocacy program, child and adolescent therapist, Online Chat, and prevention team.
One of the prevention training programs they offer is called PAVE (Peers Against Violence Educators). This program allows high school students to learn and have conversations about topics like dating abuse, healthy relationships, and how to become active leaders in dating and domestic violence prevention.
In light of TDVAM, I met with Rachael Friedman, an Evaluation and Research intern at REACH, Molly Pistrang-Gomes, Youth Education Specialist at REACH, and Mavis Joliat, a student at Waltham High and a member of PAVE, to have a discussion about these topics. Below is a bit of our conversation.
Dafni: What are some warning signs and red flags in a relationship?
Mavis: Abuse is a pattern of behaviors used to gain and maintain power and control. A couple of signs can be someone controlling your social media or what you wear.
Molly: If you’re hearing someone saying things, like “do you really need to hang out with that person?” that can also be seen as a warning sign. Another red flag can be a change in behavior. For example, if you have a weekly FaceTime with friends and they are not showing up anymore that could be a sign that your friend is in an unhealthy relationship. Unpredictability is also a warning sign. If someone does something to hurt you and then when you confront them they say, “oh i never said that,” their behavior shifts in a way where we are not sure what’s going to happen. Gaslighting is when someone makes you second guess your boundaries, and is a part of an unhealthy relationship too.
Dafni: What does it mean to be in a healthy relationship? What does it mean to be in an unhealthy relationship?
Molly: At REACH, we think about a healthy relationship as allowing our world to expand. We gain hobbies and friends. However, in an unhealthy relationship, our world shrinks. We lose friends and become isolated.
Mavis: In a healthy relationship, we can establish boundaries and mutual trust. You should have the ability to be open with your partner and feel like ‘I can be who I am.’
Molly: I love everything that Mavis is saying. With boundaries, you must have an ability to communicate, and bring up things that are not always great. Conflicts are going to arise in healthy relationships. The ability to communicate and say something like, “hey that wasn’t great, let’s talk about it” and being able to resolve those issues is really important.
Dafni: How can parents and teachers start creating habits for healthy relationships at home or at school?
Mavis: Communication overall. It may be uncomfortable to put out how you feel but it’s important so that the situation doesn’t escalate. It also lets the other person know what they are doing is not making you feel good.
Molly: Direct conversations. For adults, modeling good behaviors like boundaries for young people, and respecting their boundaries. For example, instead of saying “we have to talk about this right now,” instead try “ I want to talk about this, when is a good time?”
Rachael: Another part of it is modeling consent in an unexplicit sense. Like teaching young kids to ask for consent before hugging their friends or parents asking before entering into their bedroom. Showing young people that they have autonomy of their body and themselves is a big part of creating those habits.
Dafni: What are some things to keep in mind as an adult talking to a teenager?
Molly: The idea of believing someone. If someone says they want to talk to you about something, believe them. As adults, we try to filter things out and minimize their feelings by asking ourselves questions like is this actually a big deal? Are they being dramatic? It’s important to honor their experience. At REACH we like to say that each person is an expert in their own reality. Even a five year old who feels scared or a fifteen year old who feels heartbreak. As adults we don’t always have all the answers but we can create a space to support them like saying “I’m here if you want to just vent.”
Mavis: I agree. Believing and acknowledging a child’s feelings is important. There is a power dynamic between teens and adults and a parent’s role is different than a friend. So create a private safe space and let them share what they want to share. Listen to them and let them lead the conversation. Establishing confidentiality is also important. For example, if your teen shares something with you don’t go and tell someone else.
Molly: It is important, but some adults have responsibilities to report. Like me, I am a mandated reporter. So adults, know your role. It may be your legal obligation to report if a young person is at an active risk of harm. So be transparent and upfront. Let them know that you have obligations to report, but if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you and still need someone to go to you can share resources. Let them be in charge of where their stories go.
Dafni: For adults, what should you do if your teen is in an unhealthy relationship?
Mavis: For teachers, you can comment on what you observe and ease them into the idea of getting help and assessing whether it is an immediate need.
Molly: Name things specifically, and be able to say “I feel concerned about this…” They may not think of it as abuse, and we are not going to label it, but we can say we’re concerned. Notice what leads up to an escalation. Create and talk about a safety plan in case those things happen. For parents, that might feel like something big and you may feel like you might not have the capacity to help, so also know that there are resources available. REACH is a place to do parent training, but it doesn’t have to be from us, there are plenty of resources.
Dafni: What resources can you go to if you want more information on teen dating violence?
Molly: Loveisrespect.org. It’s a teen specific resource, has a hotline, and a texting line. There are quizzes you can take to see if your relationship is healthy. There is also information for folks in queer relationships or folks with disabilities. It’s a great place to learn. There are other websites like janedoe.org which can help you find different agencies in your geographical region.
Rachael: I wanted to talk about the Reach Chat Line which is another resource that I work at. It is a place where people can speak anonymously. It’s for survivors of abuse, teens, or concerned family or friends who need someone to talk to about issues they may not know how to address.
After having this informative and enlightening conversation, we talked about some resources that are helpful if you or someone you know needs guidance on any of the topics discussed in this blog. These resources are linked down below.
Dating violence is a big issue in our community right now specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are lots of people who are stuck inside and are feeling hopeless because they don’t have the ability to get out of abusive relationships, are unaware that their relationships are abusive, or may not be able to access resources. During this time, it is crucial for organizations like these to have the support they need to help keep their services running. Their effort helps transform the lives of their survivors and their educational programs in schools create a lasting impact on the young minds that they can reach.
Teen specific website – national website, they have have a chat line, relationship quizzes, there are lots of resources for folks of all identities
An interactive quiz to help talk with teens about abuse
Domestic violence – you can click on a link and a zip code and find agencies that help in a certain service area
Reach Online Chat – https://reachma.org/online-chat/
A place where people can speak anonymously for survivors or teens or concerned family or friends