Teen Breakups: ‘Start Strong’ Programs Aims to Make Them Safer

Liz Kulze on an innovative program aims to make teen breakups healthy—and safe.

Boston Globe via Getty Images

Nathaniel Fujita already had everything an 18-year-old boy would want. He was the handsome son of a world-famous guitarist and a skilled athlete, dominating the Wayland High School football field and 100-meter dash. He planned to attend Trinity College in the fall. And he had a bubbling and bright-eyed girlfriend, Lauren Astley—until she broke up with him, and he allegedly strangled her and left her lying in a nearby marsh.

Astley’s murder sent shock waves through the Boston suburb of Wayland. As her father remarked, “such losses bring on the great fact of the inexplicable.” But while such incidents seem to defy explanation, Lauren’s murder is an extreme consequence of the larger issue of teen dating abuse, and oftentimes, teen breakups that result in violence.

More than 20 percent of teens report experiencing dating abuse, and nearly 10 percent have faced full-on physical violence. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics reported that 1 in 5 adolescent females and 1 in 10 adolescent males have experienced physical or sexual abuse, by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Other studies have outlined the consequences. Teens in abusive relationships are more likely to suffer long-term negative behavioral and health effects such as depression, drug use, and promiscuity.

To try and combat the problem, the Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships Initiative recently held a summit in Boston that was attended virtually by teens across the country. Start Strong has been working since 2008 to empower teens with the tools to teach their communities about healthy relationships, and in line with Lauren and Nathaniel’s recent horror, healthy breakups. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California Foundation have invested $18 million in the cause and partnered with a leading domestic-violence organization, Futures Without Violence, to design and implement the initiative in 11 cities. From Austin to Los Angeles to Wichita to the Bronx, the Start Strong program is educating and engaging groups of teens to act as advisers to local youth, teaching them safe and smart ways to end relationships gone awry.

Those who join the program are trained to become part of the “teen advisory board,” a group that meets weekly to plan programs and create educational tools designed to inform parents, teachers, and their fellow students about the tenets of a healthy relationship, and safe strategies for breaking up. “They are able to make a real difference, and they are able to see that difference,” says Start Strong Boston director Casey Corcoran of his teen volunteers. “They are the young experts in teen-dating violence prevention.” It’s clear this is no ordinary afterschool program.

For Start Strong, prevention is a priority. Often, this means starting young. The initiative targets 11-to-14-year-olds, an age where holding hands still gives kids the shivers, but a ripe time to prepare them for the whirlwind of high-school relationship drama, says Corcoran. Laura Hampikian of Start Strong Idaho was only 14 when she experienced an abusive relationship, “abuse” being a term she and many teens often don’t properly understand. “I thought abuse was only physical,” she said, realizing only after joining the program that she had in fact been a victim. Manipulation and verbal insults are “nothing short of abuse,” says Hampikian, now 18. “It does the same thing to you emotionally.”

The trouble began when Hampikian attempted to break up with her first boyfriend. He responded by threatening to kill himself. “He told me I was the only thing he was living for,” she says. “We were talking on the phone every night until two or three in the morning and would both fall asleep crying over some argument. One time I had to convince him to take a rope off from around his neck.” The manipulation cost Laura both her friends and her independence. It was months before she finally called it quits, telling him, “It’s no longer my responsibility to live for you.” When asked why she felt the need to try and salvage a relationship long gone to pieces, Laura cites her parent’s divorce. “I felt like I had to make it work in order to prove to myself that a relationship can last no matter what the circumstances.” With her parent’s marriage in disarray, Laura had no idea what a healthy relationship looked like.

Parents are often part of the problem, says Corcoran. Teens who grow up around abuse, be it verbal or physical, are more likely to recognize slaps and insults as part of a normal relationship. And even if the home is a healthy one, the issue of breaking up is rarely addressed. “The reasons we don’t talk to teens about breakups is because we’re not comfortable with them as adults,” says Corcoran, “either because we don’t feel like we handled them well when we were teens, or because we feel like we don’t know the skills involved in a healthy breakup.” But there are concrete tactics one can learn. And while they won’t make the split painless, they will make things easier—or in the case of Lauren Astley, keep things from spiraling out of control.

The day Astley was killed, her coworker said that Nathaniel had been bombarding her phone with text messages, a type of control that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Technology is often the medium of choice when it comes to today’s relationship abuse, what Corcoran calls “the game changer.” This includes social media. “What used to be done face-to-face or with a phone call now might be posted on Twitter or Facebook,” he says. “These are ineffective tools.” Instead of facing one another and expressing their emotions clearly, teens rely on these removed sources of communication, which not only prolong but intensify the problem. “With adolescent brain development, one of the last things to develop is impulse control,” says Corcoran. “These are very impulsive tools.” The words exchanged through texting and Facebook messaging are also severed from tone of voice and facial expression, qualities imperative to any productive conversation—the lack of which can leave a messy breakup in a state of escalation.

Trust, friendship, equality, respect, and communication may sound like an elementary-school poster for classroom etiquette, but in a society where kids mature quickly and speak by pushing keys, these basic relationship values have been lost. A memorial service for Lauren Astley was held July 16, with nearly one-thousand mourners filing into the local Trinitarian Church. Recordings of Astley singing rang from the rafters, and while it was a moment to cherish the memory of his daughter, Malcolm Astley took the time to point out one vital lesson to be learned. He spoke of the fatal oversight in youth education, the “fourth R” missing from curriculum, after reading, writing, and arithmetic—relationships. “We can with our grief and caring and celebrating of Lauren's sparkle …” he said. “Take another step in civilizing ourselves by making the building of healthy relationships a priority on our educational and political agendas."