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Teaching kids about healthy relationships

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Laurie was 16 when she started dating Jim, a popular boy in her class. He was the Ferris Bueller of the school, Laurie says, and he was well liked by the jocks, the skaters, the brains. Even the teachers liked him.

“He was Mr. Personality,” Laurie, now in her 30s, recalls. “I was attracted to him because he gave me a lot of compliments and made me feel special.”

Little by little, those compliments turned to passive-aggressive insults, jealousy and possessive behavior. Laurie wasn’t sure how to process this turn, at first, because this was the boy who had told her how beautiful she was and how much he loved her.

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Laurie’s mother, Maureen, felt that something was off. She was on high alert.

“I’ll never forget when Laurie went to her first concert with Jim,” she says. “When she went out, she had this cute white shirt on. When she came home, she was wearing a black shirt and she wasn’t smiling. And she wouldn’t talk about the concert. I knew something had happened.”

Maureen didn’t know yet about the insults or that Jim had started physically roughing Laurie up. Laurie recalls that she fell down the stairs near the beginning of the abuse, and Jim was right behind her. She would swear that he pushed her, but he feigned concern, asking her how she had tripped.

She also remembers her sister’s wedding day; she was worried about friends and family seeing the scratches and bruises on her body at Jim’s hands.

“He drove aggressively and told me how easily he could kill us both,” Laurie says. “Once, I hit my head on the windshield when he purposely slammed on the brakes.”

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Laurie’s knowledge of love and relationships confused her; she didn’t know what was going on or how to get out for several months. As we all know by now, Laurie’s story is far from rare. Parents need to be on high alert, and perhaps most important, they need to speak to their sons and daughters about love and healthy relationships.

That’s what Christi Paul, weekday news anchor for Headline News and weekend anchor for CNN’s New Day, is doing now as a mother. She survived an abusive first marriage and has three daughters. She wrote a book about her experiences called “Love Isn’t Supposed to Hurt” to help other women understand they are not alone.

Now that she has children, Paul wants other mothers to know how to teach their sons and daughters about the signs of abuse. And it starts with helping them understand healthy friendships.

“Friends can be abusive, too,” Paul says. “My daughters and I talk about boundaries and their gut reactions to situations; sometimes, our head talks us out of what our gut feels. If you can help kids identify that early on, they’re much better equipped.”

Parenting and youth development expert Deborah Gilboa says that friendships are important for kids to develop, not just for fun but also to learn important social skills and boundaries.

“Parents can prepare kids for healthy relationships in several ways,” Gilboa, a physician, says. “First, ask your kids what they would not do for friendship. What’s a ‘friend deal-breaker’? What might someone say or do that would make you realize they’re not actually your friend? Second, pay attention to your own observations of your child’s friendships. Do you have questions or opinions about the way your child is treated? Wait until you’re alone with your child or teen to ask about those interactions. And third, have empathy for your child. These relationships are important to her or him, and it can feel like the most important thing in the world. If you see dangerous or risky interactions, mix your concern with understanding for how important the child feels this person is.”

Paul says parents need to make sure their kids understand that name-calling is not an option. It’s the gateway drug to abuse, she says. The insidious nature of abuse is the gradual escalation from criticism to insults to fists. She also teaches her kids about accountability, including apologizing to them if she yells or steps out of line. Genuinely taking ownership is important, she says, and it teaches them to recognize when someone is not doing so.

“Someone who has a hard time taking responsibility or blames everyone else is going to tell a partner after an abusive episode: ‘If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have done this.’ ”

Paul engages in role plays and conversations with her daughters about friendships and what it means to be a good friend. Being nice isn’t being weak, she tells them.

After she broke up with him, Laurie’s boyfriend Jim grabbed her by the throat in the high school hallway, choking her. When she fought back, he filed a restraining order against her, refusing to own his actions. Even at school, where there had been witnesses, other students asked her why she broke up with Jim. Laurie’s best friend asked her why she was breaking Jim’s heart like that.

“I didn’t know anything about love at the time, but I knew that hitting me wasn’t right,” Laurie says. “But by the time you are hit or pushed, your self-esteem is already shot. You are no longer the person you were your whole life.”

Jim put his next girlfriend in the hospital and he ended up in jail.

“The physical abuse doesn’t happen at the beginning. If it did, you would leave right away,” Laurie says. “In a relationship, when you are up on a pedestal and then your self-esteem is chipped away slowly, then the physical abuse is easy to accept because you believe that’s what you deserve anyway.”

Making things more complicated today are social and digital media, which can add to the abuse, Paul says. Friends, boyfriends or girlfriends can threaten others via text, Facebook, phone and other channels. The unhealthy behavior can come from all angles, not only in person, the way it was when Laurie was a teenager.

“I talk to [my girls] about how they feel when they’re with someone. I ask them to think about these questions: ‘Do you feel safe, happy, judged, shame? Is this person building you up or encouraging you? Or are they showing you that you’re not living up to their expectations?’ My parents are still married after 50 years, and I ended up in an abusive marriage anyway. They need more than role models.”

“On paper, we often say that we must raise girls who have a strong sense of self, and sons who support that,” Paul says. “I tell my girls all the time, ‘You are so strong, you are so brave.’ I want them to have that confidence to know they deserve to be treated properly.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). If you need help, here is a link to one of the resources you can use to get out. 

Shaw is a writer and mother in Austin. She’s on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @KristinVShaw.

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