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In Focus: Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

            “We teach the girls how to set and communicate healthy boundaries.” Nikole Donovan, one of six Crittenton program specialists, recently took the time to share more about the Crittenton programs she brings to dozens of our teens each week. Her voice is bright over the faint static of the phone line. She tells me, “our girls are used to being told what to do, and that’s where self-advocacy comes in. We remind the girls that they have a voice.”Nikole has her Master’s in social work from Howard, and supports teen girls at Ballou High School, Anacostia High School, and Charles Hart Middle School, all in the District’s Ward 8. SNEAKERS groups typically have 12-15 girls in the same grade, all of whom are energetic, thoughtful, and eager to engage each other in meaningful discussions. 1Nikole Donovan (right) with Program Support Specialist Ashley Melendez (left).

                The girls love ‘Ms. Nikole’ and love her style, especially her hair, which they call her ‘swoop’. Cultivating positive connections with the girls is incredibly important. This is especially true considering that Nikole has been focusing her groups on healthy relationships - a cornerstone of the Crittenton curriculum. She teaches them that all relationships fall somewhere on the spectrum between healthy and unhealthy, but the distinction is tough. “What are the characteristics of a successful relationship?” Nikole asks, getting the girls to dig deeper into the issue. “What can destroy a relationship?”

When it comes to the ideal partner, “younger girls want someone who is cute and cool,” says Nikole, and I can hear the smile in her voice. “I try to remind them that internal things matter as well. Now, my older girls want a cute partner too, but they often take it to the next level.” Nikole touches on open communication, honesty, trustworthiness, open mindedness in all of her groups. Once the girls begin to talk about the internal characteristics that matter in a partner, then the conversation on healthy, intimate relationships can begin.

                To spark interest, Nikole uses celebrity couples as examples, asking the girls to identify what about those relationships are healthy or unhealthy. Soon, power and control become the focus in group – especially with regards to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat accounts. Nikole emphasizes that having the expectation to exchange account passwords is not healthy, regardless of whether you expect it, or your partner does. “Personal space and respect are both really important,” Nikole points out. “The girls realize that social media can destroy relationships.” Sometimes, girls discover that they have been expecting to exchange passwords with their partners. “I can’t be controlling, either!” they exclaim.

                In another activity, Nikole role-plays with Rosa, who wants to have a girl’s night with just her girlfriends. Surprisingly, many of the girls are unsure about this idea. “Why wouldn’t you spend the night with your boyfriend or girlfriend?” they ask. Here, Nikole focuses on the importance of having a life separate from that of your significant other – your own friends, your own hobbies, and without an expectation that your significant other always needs to know where you are. Being controlling or domineering were traits that many of the girls associated with manliness, and Nikole strives to demonstrate to the girls that having your own identity is important – in several different kinds of relationships.

Nikole mentions that sometimes, it’s helpful for the girls to have an accountability partner - a peer - who reminds them that they have power in their relationships, too! This accountability partner is a positive influence when it comes to issues regarding sexual relationships, such as safe sex, and also with regards to other kinds of relationships. Girls are encouraged to reach out to their partners whenever they find themselves in a tricky situation. In addition, the girls practice setting boundaries with role-playing games, and learn to find the best ways to communicate in all of their different relationships, not just romantic relationships.

As a result of these discussions, Crittenton girls show significant growth in their understanding of relationship health. According to Crittenton’s DC Outcomes Report from 2015-2016, Crittenton girls showed tremendous strides in their abilities to appropriately communicate their feelings, how to attain their goals and a nearly 50% increase in knowledge of healthy relationships as measured by a comparison of pretest and posttest scores for a series of knowledge questions. “It’s important for all girls to find security within themselves, instead of looking for it in their relationships,” says Nikole. By ensuring that the topic of healthy relationships is woven throughout group discussions all year, as well as pairing girls as accountability partners, Crittenton girls build upon a solid foundation to make empowered decisions and build healthy relationships.

It’s a small miracle that Nikole has found a moment to talk about the work she does in SNEAKERS. Each day is packed not only being the leader of each group, but also as a liaison between teachers, administrators, parents and girls. In fact, she only makes it into the Crittenton office on Fridays. Yet, for Nikole, keeping our greater community informed is important in its own right. “Our friends and supporters need to know how we put their generosity to work for our girls,” she shared, “It’s making a huge and lasting difference.” 

To find out more about Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, visit the Love is Respect website here.If you are in an abusive relationship, click here. If someone you know is in an abusive relationship, click here.