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Lawrence Harmon

Fathers: Talk safety with girls

By Lawrence Harmon
July 8, 2011

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FATHERS OF teenage girls are hardwired to be suspicious of their daughters’ boyfriends. Questions - often unvoiced - linger just below the surface: Is this boy on the up-and-up? Does he treat my daughter with respect when I’m not there? Would she tell me if her boyfriend did something that frightened her?

Sometimes, the answers can be a matter of life and death.

Nathaniel Fujita, a recent graduate of Wayland High School, is charged with the July 3 murder of 18-year-old Lauren Astley, his ex-girlfriend and classmate. The two had dated throughout high school until a break-up in the spring. She was wisely concerned about his growing inability to manage his anger. She was ready to move on. He wasn’t, according to law enforcement officials. District Attorney Gerard Leone calls the case a “classic fatal paradigm that we see around teen dating relationships.’’

That fatal paradigm usually involves a young man who is hell-bent on controlling his partner, yet can’t control himself. The perpetrator is often extremely possessive and jealous, traits attributed to Fujita by some who knew the couple, according to investigators. Domestic abusers often resort to more violence than needed to accomplish their goals - even when that goal is murder. Prosecutors charge that Fujita, 18, showed “extreme atrocity’’ when cutting the neck of his ex-girlfriend.

This gruesome case might compel some fathers to adopt the persona of the pioneer pa who sits on the porch cradling his double barrel shotgun as the suitor arrives. If only it worked. Daughters see such posturing as ridiculous and embarrassing. Intimidation tactics might succeed at frightening away a decent young man who wouldn’t want to date a girl with an unstable father. But boys prone to domestic violence won’t be put off by this show. Often times, they’ve grown up in households saturated in real violence.

But there is a role for vigilant fathers. Domestic violence experts suggest being on the look-out for the following danger signs: your daughter appears fearful of not immediately returning a boyfriend’s frequent texts or calls; a boyfriend insists that she give up favorite activities to conform with his schedule; he insults her frequently; she seems like she’s walking on eggshells when around him; and the relationship centers so much on the boyfriend that the girl feels solely responsible for his feelings.

Blessedly, few incidents of teen dating violence end in such gruesome fashion as the one in Wayland. But one in three adolescent girls falls victim to physical, verbal, or emotional abuse from a dating partner, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. If that’s true, fathers will need to speak a lot more frequently - and calmly - with their daughters about their dating relationships. It’s not enough just to warn daughters of stranger danger or teach them about the best body language to adopt on the street or the T. Such talks about their dating lives now might have a bigger impact than most dads could ever imagine on whether their grown daughters enter trusting, loving marriages.

Malcolm Astley, the slain girl’s father, has been remarkably forthcoming since the murder of his daughter. That may help him cope with the horror. But as an educator and man of high principle, he has expressed the desire that other families learn from his family’s pain. For those who are open to such a lesson, Astley has offered insights on the boy accused of killing his daughter and expressed compassion for his family.

For those of us not inclined toward highmindedness, there are still practical lessons to be learned from this case. Astley told the Globe he perceived “a comfort and a mellowness to the way they (his daughter and her alleged killer) interacted.’’ Domestic violence experts say that abusers are often skillful at hiding their dark deeds from a victim’s family. And sometimes, the young women will go to great lengths to keep the abuse a secret.

This case is especially unnerving to fathers and causes them to question if they are doing enough to protect their teenage daughters. They’re not, unless they are making special efforts to speak with their girls about dating violence. And even then, fathers can only hope they’ll be heard above the social and emotional din of their daughters’ lives.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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