How you present yourself matters, so Susan Harrow teaches teenage girls to stand up straight and make good eye contact. She coaches them to speak with a forceful, no-nonsense voice. She talks about different faces — the "hard" face that brooks no argument and the "soft" one that invites cooperation. Hands are both weapons and signals, able to push someone away if needed, or simply convey "Stop that!"
Delivering the no-go message could have grave importance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as one-third of teens (33 percent) will find themselves on a date in which abuse, coercion or actual violence takes place. That compares to adults where one-fourth of women who date and one-seventh of men who date experience dating abuse or violence.
Harrow is a martial artist who loves Aikido and a marketing strategist by trade. Her company, PRsecrets.com, helps executives convey their message through the media. She wrote a book about that, "Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul."
But she's just as interested in the messages that teens convey to keep themselves safe in tricky personal interactions. So she created a training course to teach girls "powerhouse moves" to keep them safe and in control.
Rites of passage like going to school and dating are not without some risks for which teenagers may find themselves unprepared. Parents talk to them about the dangers of drinking and driving, about automobile safety and myriad other issues. They may talk about risky sexual behaviors. But it's not clear if they talk about the potential for abuse by a dating partner.
Experts, including Harrow, say it's better to prevent such trouble before it gets started.
Risk and respect
The CDC cites numerous studies showing health issues can spring from dating violence. Youths who experience it are more likely to be anxious or depressed, to smoke and drink and experiment with drugs. They have greater risk of antisocial behavior and suicidal thoughts.
The Austin, Texas-based antiviolence organization Love Is Respect hears stories about a wide spectrum of domestic violence, including dating abuse among teens. Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer, said that runs the gamut from sexual coercion — verbal or emotional — to physical abuse. A date may consider sex a fair exchange for the cost of dinner or be angry or sad in order to get their date to comply. Shame, guilt, even threats of retaliation may be used.
Some dating abuse is digital, such as circulating pictures that were supposed to be private, stalking on social media, making abusive posts or trying to control other relationships, she said. One partner may try to manage how the other spends time or money, what she eats or what she wears.
The solution is self-defense, but not necessarily the physical actions most think of, like martial arts. While Harrow's a fan of that, she says nonviolent prevention is better. Teenagers need to learn verbal self-defense, which can prevent harm. They can learn to say "no" effectively in situations where they're pressured to do things they don't want to, from alcohol and drugs to sex, shutting down the conversation entirely. They can cool down conflict and figure out how to end an unwanted conversation. They can discourage an abuser from even trying.
Harrow developed True Shield: Verbal Self-Defense For Girls, a six-hour course for organizations, schools and others that focuses on how girls can verbally handle 10 common tricky scenarios.
She says her techniques are "grounded in everyday reality and proven communication skills. A girl might not be able to perform Kotegaeshi (a maneuver that breaks an aggressor's grip on one's wrist) on a school bus, but she can learn how to slam her book shut and move to another seat if she's being harassed by a bully. Same principle. Different power move."
In the face of danger, the point is to stand tall and be strong and convey clearly that you are not an easy victim, she told the Deseret News. In other situations, it's about getting noticed in a good way. There are remarkable similarities in how one accomplishes either goal.
Harrow's program offers what she calls "powerhouse" moves that anyone can use. They include noise, movement, a determined demeanor and conveying personal strength to discourage abuse. She also teaches girls how to ask for things that are important, like a teacher's attention, in nonviolent situations. Girls need to stand up for themselves in multiple ways, she says.
Among the powerhouse moves:
• A girl should throw out her hand in a "stop" sign and say "No. Do NOT touch me." Then move to a safer location. If the person is threatening her or moving toward her, she should say it again firmly and calmly, but loudly, while creating distance. She needs her unflinching "hard" eyes.
• If someone bothers a girl while she's reading a book at school or on a bus, silence is the best response. She should just slam the book shut and move to a different seat. It's a redirection that can prevent a potentially bad situation, from bullying to stalking or harassment. If the girl won't engage, there is no game, says Harrow.
• The move she calls the "non-negotiable" is for girls who are being pressured to drink or try drugs or have sex — or anything else that makes them uncomfortable. "Start by saying 'no' in a neutral but strong voice. If they persist, look them in the eye and don't say a thing. 'No' was the end of the conversation. It was never a negotiation," she added.
• If a dating partner pressures for sex, Harrow recommends starting with a soft look that can become harder as needed. She offers an example of how the conversation might go. A girl should say something like, "Sex is a big deal. I am honored that you want to experience it with me, but I'm not ready. Please don't ask me again. I'll tell you when I'm ready to reopen this conversation." That closes the door in what is not a negotiation. No means no.
Girls can start learning to stand up for themselves in dating situations when they are young and the stakes lower. For instance, when a teacher never calls on her, though her hand's up, it's appropriate after class for the student to calmly and pleasantly tell the teacher that her hand was raised and was ignored. "Can we agree that the next time I raise my hand, you will notice and call on me," is what Harrow suggests she should say. It's OK to be both pleasant and insistent.
Crawford said children must be taught about healthy relationships early. A parent who thinks a child is in an abusive relationship should be supportive. But she warns that parents, often anxious to fix problems, forget to listen and instead simply tell their children what to do or make them feel blamed for a bad situation.
"Sometimes what we think is supportive may not be, to that person," she said.
The Love Is Respect website offers tips for recognizing and helping teens and young adults handle abuse. First is listening without judgment, Crawford said. If children disclose abusive relationships, "let them know it's not their fault and they shouldn't feel like they're to blame. Show concern."
"Remind your children they have the right to say no to anything they are not comfortable with or ready for," she said. "At the same time, they also have to respect the rights of other people."