Tips on Safe Dating, Teen to Teen

Retreat initiative looks at makings of healthy relationships, and abusive ones
Members of the winter 2019 Teen Leadership Project, sponsored by the Retreat, will help lead a workshop tonight at the East Hampton Library that includes exercises like Choose Your Own Ending, which asks attendees to imagine different scenarios that can head off teen dating violence. Helen Atkinson-Barnes

When it comes to love and relationships, sonnets have been written, songs have been sung, and tales have been told about romances since the dawn of time, and people still find themselves searching for ways to make sense of it all. So imagine being a teenager trying to navigate such things — especially for the first time. And then, imagine how important it could be if some experts helped break it down for you at a workshop created for teenagers, that is partly run by teenagers, and distills such complicated topics into messages like these:

Love Asks. Love Feels Safe. Love Respects Boundaries. Love Embraces All.

The workshop, which is called In Their Shoes, will be held Thursday night from 5:30 to 7 in the East Hampton Library’s Young Adult room, as part of the Teen Leadership Project program that is sponsored by the Retreat, an East Hampton agency that works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The event, which is open to all high schoolers, will feature some of the 23 East Hampton, Ross, and Pierson high school students who have committed to attending the Teen Leadership program, a series of eight weekly after-school training intensives the Retreat offers each fall and spring. Topics include teen dating, the dynamics of all relationships, abuse prevention, and safe and effective intervention strategies.

“A lot of the focus [of tonight’s event] is about creating awareness and empathy,” said Helen Atkinson-Barnes, the Retreat’s education program director. “We cover things such as what is abuse? What are people going through when they’re in a situation where someone is abusive? There is a whole range of ‘romantic’ myths about what relationships should look like, and this can be especially challenging for teens. So we often break it down into smaller chunks where we really explore it.”

Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said one of the most common myths is the idea that abuse is only physical. 

“People often miss the whole package of what abuse is,” she said. “Part of what we do is help people understand abuse is really about power and control. Hurting somebody physically might be one of many tactics that people use to assert that power and control, but there’s also emotional abuse, the silent treatment, undermining a partner’s friendships, verbal abuse, or sexual, financial, or technological abuse — things like tracking someone digitally, or posting about them online. There are a whole range of tactics.” 

Separating abusive tactics from caring behavior can be difficult for anyone, but especially for teens.

“Jealousy, for example, not letting someone break up with you, can be another romantic myth — some people say, ‘Oh, that means they really love me, care about me,’ ” Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said. “But jealousy is actually one of the major markers of highly abusive relationships. Things like, ‘I don’t want you talking to your ex. I don’t want you talking to any other guys or girls. Your friends bug me. They’re not good enough for you.’ Undermining other relationships is a big part of what we see in abusive relationships too.”

While tonight’s event is a one-time session, the Retreat holds prevention and education programs throughout the year hoping to help people of all ages head off unhealthy relationships before they ever need the sort of help and services the shelter provides for domestic violence and abuse victims.

The Teen Leadership Project, in particular, is made available for students each fall and spring semester. The students can choose to attend at either the Retreat’s East Hampton offices at 13 Goodfriend Drive, or at Southampton High School, and they often qualify for community service credit by doing so. Sometimes the sessions include role-playing exercises. Sometimes, survivors of abuse speak to the group. In addition to the educational training, the teens create and implement at least one independent project such as a workshop, event, or video. 

Last week the Leadership Project teens heard from a former East Hampton High School student and abuse survivor who often wore clothing to hide her bruises, but found that even when they were visible, no one at school even asked if something bad was happening.

“Sometimes knowing how to view things from another person’s perspective can be a very important and powerful thing,” Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said. “It’s not uncommon for people in relationships to ask, ‘Is this what something is supposed to be like?’ We try to help them recognize patterns and warning signs.”