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Teaching teens about dating abuse

Dating abuse among teens isn’t talked about much. Jenny Moeller wants to change that.

It’s a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among high school students who dated, 21 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys experienced physical and/or sexual dating violence. Other groups estimate 1 in 3 teens experience abuse ranging from verbal to physical harm.

Moeller, founder of the Spokane group Create Your Statement, has built curriculum since 2013 for teaching teenagers how to recognize danger signs and empower them to avoid unhealthy relationships.

She’s also created tools, including a relationship quiz and Teen Power & Control Wheel. The wheel highlights warning signs of abuse: isolation, peer pressure, anger or emotional abuse, social status, intimidation, threats, sexual persuasion and minimizing or denying.

“Create Your Statement does not promote dating, but we know dating is going to happen in youths’ lives at some point. When it does, we want them to be equipped,” said Moeller, who is reaching teens at such places as the Boys and Girls Club, Crosswalk, Mead High School and the Kalispel Tribe.

“A lot of times kids are talked to about sex, alcohol abuse, drugs and bullying, but dating abuse often gets passed over. There’s not a clear plan for kids understanding what your dating boundaries are.”

She also thinks misconceptions exist about who can become victims of dating abuse and domestic violence.

Long into a healthy marriage now, the 45-year-old Moeller said she experienced dating abuse during her teen years. She described going from one destructive relationship to the next, eventually fleeing to escape life-threatening danger.

“I grew up with a great family and friends,” she said. “I was very much a leader, had confidence in high school, great grades, but I did not have clear boundaries in place as to what was acceptable and what wasn’t with dating.”

“There were two very dangerous times; I ended up having to leave the state because of stalking issues. Dating abuse doesn’t discriminate. It affects teens from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.”

Create Your Statement has reached more than 3,000 students with programs aimed at youth in grades seven to 12. The group also has a contract with the juvenile courts’ Diversion and Becca programs, and it won a nonprofit Agora business award in 2016.

Moeller, who does some real estate work, mainly devotes her time to Create Your Statement. She previously worked seven years in recovery support for domestic violence victims.

After hearing more abused women in recent years describe concerns about their teenage daughters’ relationships, Moeller saw a need for a regional youth program.

“It became apparent, who is really talking to our teens about understanding what those signs are? A lot of the time it happens when these young women and men don’t have clear boundaries.”

“Young people can get confused about who they are and get more co-dependent on their dating partner instead of realizing their own strengths and talents.”

RedFlag and Compass

Moeller developed RedFlag, a seven-week course for youth ages 12-18 with tools to avoid unhealthy relationships and understand how to form healthy ones.

RedFlag modules follow letters in the name. They are Respect yourself; Expect disrespect at times; Decide what to do with disrespect; Future, what that looks like if you accept disrespect; Lead, don’t be led; Authentic, be yourself; Gifts, both life as a gift and giving talents.

Moeller created another program recently called Compass for young men, because “more young ladies are crossing lines,” she said, and young men aren’t speaking up.

A seven-week course for teens costs $35 per student, but the nonprofit covers that expense if it’s a financial hardship.

The programs also use repetitive statements to help teens communicate with boldness and grace what they will and won’t accept in a relationship, she said. Teens are reminded they are valuable.

“We say, ‘You’re always priceless regardless of what’s happened to you,’ ” Moeller said. “As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ We talk about what your rights are, what healthy dating boundaries look like.”

“We let them know they have the right to set expectations. They have the right not to engage in a sexual relationship without being made to feel bad. They have the right to privacy, the right to hang out with friends when they want to, and not to be threatened emotionally, verbally or physically.”

Along with prevention, the nonprofit has focuses on leadership and character, while encouraging community volunteering. Gaining those experiences and leadership roles can’t be taken away from an individual by a boyfriend or girlfriend, Moeller said.

That’s somewhat behind the Create Your Statement name, helping youths understand they define who they are, she adds. It’s easy for people to think they have to change for someone else. One example is when a teenager loves basketball, but the dating partner discourages it.

“They’ll say, ‘Please don’t try out for the basketball team because I want to spend more time with you,’ ” Moeller said. That might make the sports enthusiast think, “ ‘He or she loves me so much.’ ”

“They give up a gift or talent and they don’t pursue that. They could have been cultivating a gift or talent for a future scholarship. We tell kids, ‘You’re not too young to think about goals.’ ”

Teens who are in an abusive relationship tend to avoid talking about problems to peers or parents, she said, usually feeling embarrassed or thinking they can work it out. The abuse could spiral into depression, drugs or even suicide.

She suggests parents watch for warning signs, such as teens becoming introverted and avoiding normal activities.

Other services

Create Your Statement has additional services. They include:

Train the Trainers program for youth leaders in Spokane, Idaho, Montana and the Seattle area.

Offering both a faith-based curriculum for church youth groups and a school-based curriculum.

Presenting to large and small groups, ideally with at least 10 teens participating. The group can provide a shorter two-hour overview, such as a coed class, Dating Abuse Awareness 101.

“Our big goal is to take Compass and RedFlag and combine them for a program called Take A Stand to bring into the schools hopefully by spring,” Moeller said.

“I’m clear: I’m not a counselor; I’m a mentor,” she added. “You have to have skills to prevent dating abuse. You’re in control of your attitudes and actions. Maybe you’ve grown up around an unhealthy relationship. It doesn’t mean you need to repeat that cycle.”