Rothman said publicity over the Astley murder has been a “wake-up” call for many parents. “There has been an outpouring of concern and requests for information.”
In memory of the 18-year old victim, the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund is working to promote safer teen dating. Both Rothman and the nonprofit organization are calling for legislation that would provide funding for education about dating violence in public schools.
Malcolm Astley, Lauren’s father, would like to see educational programs beginning in kindergarten that would focus on bullying in early elementary years and expand later to include dating abuse. He notes that children are “claiming their sexuality younger and younger,” making them more vulnerable to dating abuse.
“Girls and boys are objectifying each other more now. It leads to increased sex that isn’t quite handled easily or well and there are a lot of side effects,” he said in a telephone interview.
Experts suggest that parents think in terms of not one big “talk” with their teens about sex and intimate relationships, but a series of conversations that continue throughout their teens. Astley said parents need to understand that “control issues” won’t be visible at first, but will gradually accumulate during the course of the relationship. “Parents have to keep assessing as the relationship goes on,” he said.
Siegel, at Children’s Hospital, suggests broaching difficult topics by making the questions hypothetical. In other words, by saying “if this were happening, feel free to come to me,” or “if this were happening, here is where you could get more information or emergency services.”
In a 2008 national online survey posted on Loveisrespect.org, nearly half the 1,043 children age 11 to 14 queried said they had already been in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. One in three said they knew a friend who has had intercourse or oral sex.
“That says to me that we need to start talking about it early and often,” said Casey Corcoran, program director at Futures Without Violence in Boston, a nonprofit that works to end violence against women. “The first time you talk to your child about being in a healthy relationship shouldn’t be when they are already in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.”
Social media may amplify feelings of loss and humiliation that accompany a breakup.
The public exposure adds to the pressure. His organization teaches teens to take a “technology timeout.” Corcoran says, “They don’t have to swear off Facebook completely, but we tell them to give themselves some breathing room and commit to not posting anything about an ex-partner.”
Breakups are always awkward, but in an abusive relationship, they can be dangerous, said Colleen Armstrong, education program manager for Reach Beyond Domestic Violence, which provides services in 27 cities and towns in west suburban Boston.
“You want to be thinking about safety at all times,” she said, but especially in the 90-day period following a breakup. Teenagers need to know that it could be dangerous to see their abuser alone — no matter how remorseful he or she might seem. She encourages teens to let friends as well as parents know about their safety concerns, and if there is any evidence of stalking behavior, seek professional resources.
Jan Brogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.