Empowering Teens to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence (part 2)

It’s not easy being 17. At Sanctuary, we’re working to help teens navigate negative messages and achieve healthy relationships.

This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read part one.

At Sanctuary, I have the opportunity to work with teens like Lena to counteract messages about unhealthy relationships and “break the cycle” of domestic violence.

The Children and Youth Services Program staff offer a range of services specifically designed to meet the needs of teens – from individual counseling, to educational support, leadership workshops, and even a comprehensive Afterschool Enrichment Program that operates three days per week.

During counseling sessions with Lena, we spent a lot of time talking about what kind of things she would want in a relationship, what she felt she needed from a supportive partner. We talked about different aspects of the unhealthy and abusive relationship she had witnessed between her parents, and what the alternatives were for a healthy relationship.

I never tell a teen I’m working with what to do – that doesn’t work. I want teens to really think about these things on their own, with my help, so that they can figure out what they want in their lives and what they want out of a loving relationship.

I help them understand that because they saw violence growing up doesn’t necessarily mean it is normal or okay, but instead that there are all different ways to have a relationship and to communicate effectively what you want and how you feel.

The biggest challenge I face is working with teens families who have so many competing needs. Most of the families I work with have really concrete issues that need to be addressed, due to financial struggles, and due to systems that continue to oppress the teen and their family (including the public benefits system, education system, court system, or just racism/classism/sexism in general).

When my clients are returning to chaotic and violent neighborhoods and homes, it’s hard to help them focus during a counseling session on discussing their feelings.

That said, working with teens is amazing. I’ve worked with teens and young people from 12-25 years of age from all over the world and various educational, socio-economic, religious, and ethnic/racial backgrounds and I have learned something from all of them.

One thing I’ve learned, is that teens can tell when you’re being fake or just trying to placate them – if you’re honest with them, they will be honest with you. It’s a great feeling to get to know a teen, have them share things with you about their lives, and then help them figure out what they want for themselves and how to achieve it.

For Lena, talking through practical examples of healthy versus not healthy relationships was huge. She started thinking that healthy relationships were impossible, but eventually saw they were possible and that she deserved to have healthy relationships in the future.

The power of providing services to teens is that I can intervene at a really critical time in a teen’s life, and empower a teen like Lena to create a really different, healthy and fulfilling future for herself.

Andrea Yeriazarian has been working with kids and teens since she became a social worker 11 years ago. Andrea has spent 9 of those years with Sanctuary’s Children’s and Youth Services Program, and has been a leader in shaping the agency’s services for teens.

View all of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog posts and awareness-raising efforts!

Empowering Teens to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence (part 1)

It’s hard enough being a teen. So what happens when teens face domestic violence?

Lena was just 17 when she came to Sanctuary for counseling. For years she’d witnessed her father abuse her mother – physically, verbally, emotionally and economically – and at times Lena herself was the target of his attacks.

Teens are deeply impacted by witnessing any sort of violence between their parents. It’s normal for teens to be focused on developing their identity, figuring out who they are, and asserting some sort of independence. When there is violence in the home, these normal developmental tasks are impacted and even sidetracked.

The way that we as individuals learn about life and how to act in life, and what behavior is appropriate, is through our family. We learn from watching our parents – how they take care of us, how they interact with each other, how they interact with the world. When the only examples you’ve been given are of violence, it’s really hard for teens to understand that an abusive and controlling relationship isn’t normal – that love doesn’t have to include violence.

Lena faced these struggles. She knew she did not want to be in an abusive relationship, but she was also convinced that any relationship she tried to enter with a boyfriend would turn abusive. She had a hard time believing that healthy relationships were real or possible, and struggled to identify any healthy relationships she knew of at all.

Of course, feelings like these are abetted by pressures from peers and messages from society. If you think back to when you were a teen, did you seek advice from adults or other teens? Most likely, you talked to your friends about your relationships, not your parents. Which is totally normal.

The thing is, teens don’t always have the most accurate or healthy information to pass along to their peers. In our world today, there exists so much violence and so many examples of unhealthy relationships that people start to believe these relationships are normal. Combine this with an abusive household, and the results can be disastrous for a teen who’s just trying to figure things out.

Teens in violent homes may be forced to act “parentified” – as an adult, instead of a teen, taking on the responsibility of protecting the abused parent and younger siblings while trying to keep the household running. Some teens will leave altogether and engaging in risk-taking behaviors: skipping school, substance use, and participating in gangs as a way of finding support. Needless to say, school often suffers and it’s nearly impossible to set goals for the future.

This post is Part 1 of a 2-part series about teens and domestic violence- read Part 2.

Andrea Yeriazarian has been working with kids and teens since she became a social worker 11 years ago. Andrea has spent 9 of those years with Sanctuary’s Children’s and Youth Services Program, and has been a leader in shaping the agency’s services for teens.  

 View all of our Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog series, and find out how you can speak up.