Teens Learn to Walk Away from Dating Violence Young People Face Daily Pressures to Conform: In Looks, Dress, and Social Life. Some Negotiate Their Own Path with Few Hitches. but Others, Lacking Strong Family Ties and a Sense of Their Own Value, Seek Companionship That Promises Support but Often Leads to Harm. for Girls, It Can Mean Remaining in a Relationship with a Boy Who Is Abusive. for Boys, Gang Membership Can Hold a Special Allure. for Adults, It Means Renewed Efforts to Point Kids in an Alternative - and Productive - Direction. Series: Out of Harm's Way: Countering Negative Influences. Part Three of Four. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

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When counselors began teaching teens several years ago how to avoid future domestic violence, they had a rude awakening. They were too late.

Many of the high school students were already involved in abusive relationships, but they hadn't been coming forward out of confusion or fear. The outreach coordinators from battered women's programs quickly changed tactics, focusing on raising awareness and spurring research.

"We're in the schools and we're finding out that we don't have to wait," says Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. At a time when the art of steering a child safely through adolescence means parents must be savvy about the signs of drug use and eating disorders, psychologists are raising another red flag: dating violence. Recent research shows that one-third of all teenage relationships include emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Peer pressure, the media, and teen inexperience with dating are to blame, experts say. Luz Troche can attest to the problem. Sitting in a cafeteria at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass., the high school student explains that she has already struggled with an abusive boyfriend. "He was too possessive. I had to leave him." The fact that teens are incorporating violence into their early relationships is hard for many adults - and especially parents - to believe, says Ms. Giggans, who is also co-author of "What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence" (Seal Press). "Folks are just beginning to start talking about this stuff," she says. "We don't teach our teens how to have good relationships. This is a big arena that's up for big discussion, and we're not having enough of it." A dim future The impact of teen dating violence looms large for society. In addition to concerns about a victim's mental and physical well-being and the cost of rehabilitating or incarcerating abusers, a community loses a valuable future teacher or accountant or lawyer if the victim drops out of school. If an abused teen is pregnant, she is more likely to expose her child to violence, extending the chain of abuse. "This has wide ramifications," says David Sugarman, a psychology professor at Rhode Island College in Providence. Peer pressure - so intense during adolescence - is one of the factors most to blame. Boys, who most often are the abusers, find others sanctioning violence. Aggressive behavior is rewarded on the playing field. Boys are seen as "macho" or "cool" to their male friends if they have a girlfriend and can control her, Professor Sugarman says. For teenage girls, there is pressure to be in a relationship, regardless of how damaging it may be. Cutting ties to a popular boy can be extremely difficult, Sugarman says. A girl's friends may even reinforce the idea that it's okay for her boyfriend to hit her. A teen's dating inexperience also contributes to unhealthy relationships. It can make a girl misread what older women would more easily identify as emotional or physical control. She may see her boyfriend's controlling behavior as normal, or even a sign of attentiveness. Finding the exit "I think it's even harder for teens to get out of an abusive relationship {than adult women}," says Barri Rosenbluth, head of the Austin Teen Dating Violence Project at the Center for Battered Women in Austin, Texas. "They don't have anything to compare it to. What I see so often is that they're trying so hard to prove to their parents that they can be independent and they have good judgment." Women are particularly susceptible during their teen years, when they stop thinking of their own growth. They start focusing on how to win boys' approval, says Joan Quinlan, project officer for Girl Power, a new program of the US Department of Health and Human Services that seek to prevent girls from becoming involved in drug use, crime, and sexual activity. …