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Many teens are baffled by relationship violence

Adolescents in region say they and their friends are too young for intensity seen in Wayland case

'With kids this young, it’s puppy love. There’s no reason to act like that,' John Fraser, 16, Braintree said. "With kids this young, it’s puppy love. There’s no reason to act like that," John Fraser, 16, Braintree said.
By Vivian Yee and Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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It’s somebody else’s problem.

It can’t happen to me - I’m too young.

As metro Boston absorbed the news of the brutal killing of an 18-year-old in Wayland, purportedly at the hands of her longtime boyfriend, a cross-section of teenagers interviewed yesterday said they had given little thought to relationship violence, even if they knew someone who had endured a traumatic break-up.

They have friends in relationships as long as the three-year romance of Lauren Astley and Nathaniel Fujita, but they could not imagine any relationship at their age burning so hot that it could end in tragedy.

“With kids this young, it’s puppy love,’’ said John Fraser, 16, who was at the mall during his summer break from Braintree High School. “There’s no reason to act like that.’’

Teachers and parents preach about the perils of relationships twisting into violence. Teenagers are too young, they say, to deal with serious relationships on their own, but not too young, despite what they might think, to suffer abuse and violence.

Yet more than a dozen teenagers interviewed outside shopping plazas in Braintree and Boston said that right now, in the midst of summer vacation, their thoughts turned more to relaxation than to the sober concerns of relationships gone sour.

At age 15, Tessa McKean and Sarah Mellyn have friends at Stoughton High who have been dating for a year or longer. But their friends’ relationships seem casual, they said. If those romances end, the girls predicted, neither boy nor girl would react explosively.

“It’s a little weird to be in such a serious relationship right now,’’ Mellyn said. “If you’re in high school, it’s not like you’re getting married.’’

It is not that teenagers are complete strangers to the realities of abusive relationships. When a friend of Fraser’s broke up with a longtime boyfriend months ago, the upset former boyfriend brandished a gun. But Fraser views the episode as an anomaly.

Even if their children see the issue as more theoretical than practical, parents said communication at home is key to healthy teenage relationships.

Walking out of Nordstrom’s at South Shore Plaza, Carlitos Tavares, 43, said his 13-year-old daughter, Charlene, is not yet allowed to date. He said he hopes that when Charlene is old enough to date, she will choose a boy who respects her.

Seekonk resident Christina Machado, 44, has taught her 16-year-old daughter, Jordyn, to enjoy spending time with her boyfriend of five months, but not so much that she neglects friends, family, and hobbies. Those conversations include Jordyn’s boyfriend and his parents.

“I want to make sure they’re strong enough to be their own people,’’ Machado said.

Jordyn appears to be listening: “I don’t feel like I have to see him every day,’’ she said of her boyfriend.

Jordyn has seen how too much intensity at a young age can rot a relationship, she said: When a friend took a break from her longtime boyfriend, he was enraged to see her talking to other boys. Once, he showed up at her house yelling, refusing to leave.

Most of the teenagers had received sporadic advice from health teachers and guidance counselors on relationships. Breaking up is not the end of the world, they are told. If you feel unsafe, ask for help. But in most schools, that is about it.

“They only tell us a little bit, not as much as they should,’’ said Katrina Boland, 15, a student at Weymouth High who was shopping with her grandmother at South Bay Center.

The dearth of awareness about dating violence has prompted 24 Boston teenagers to take jobs educating others about unhealthy relationships.

Nathaniel Brewer, 17, said he first heard on the news and then on Twitter of Lauren Astley’s killing, which police have attributed to her former boyfriend, a high school classmate accused of strangling her, slashing her throat, and dumping her in a marsh.

Brewer’s initial reaction was surprise at the brutality. “That relationship had to be abusive for a while, because that’s heartless,’’ he said.

But it was Brewer’s mother who helped draw the connection between Astley’s death and Brewer’s job with the Boston Public Health Commission. He participates in the commission’s Start Strong Initiative, which teaches 11- to 14-year-olds healthy relationship skills. The lessons are taught by older teenagers because, as conventional wisdom goes, teenagers are more likely to listen to their peers than adults.

“It will be used as an example of why people need to speak up when they are in unhealthy-slash-abusive relationships,’’ said Brewer, a Brookline High senior. “My mom always told me I should treat a woman the way I want her to be treated, which is the best, but I didn’t know the details.’’

Details such as making sure couples adopt an appropriate tone when speaking to each other and avoid put-downs “like calling your partner stupid or saying you’re dumb or annoying or yelling at them or swearing at them,’’ Brewer said.

His co-worker and friend, Mileena Torres, said she sees friends who do not have the coping skills to maintain a healthy relationship or to leave an unhealthy one.

“In school and in family, we don’t really talk about break-up,’’ said Torres, a 16-year-old junior at Boston Latin School. “If they are breaking up with somebody, they need to know ways to do it that will leave them safe and not in danger.’’

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.