Deadly Breakups: How to Talk About Teen Dating Violence

Ever since my daughters were small, I have inundated them with broadcasts about the perils of life. Since they could walk and talk, I professed the danger of strangers, and ensured that they looked both ways before crossing. I followed suit later with bigger rules. Don't drink or text and drive. Don't go to the bathroom alone at a concert and never get in a car with someone you don't know. I felt like I was doing my Mom job. When I met Mary Dunne, however, I realized that I was merely scratching the surface.

I recently attended an event hosted by The Second Step, an organization near Boston that focuses on helping victims of domestic violence rebuild their lives. Mary Dunne was the guest speaker. Mary became reluctantly famous on July 3, 2011, when her 18-year-old daughter Lauren Astley was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.

Mary Dunne has glistening blue eyes and a soft-spoken demeanor. I had the opportunity to visit with her before the presentation. We talked like mothers do. I told her of the girls' journey to college and asked about her work as a teacher. I felt nervous and unsure of what to say, but Mary made it easy. I liked her instantly. Even in the pothole of life called grief, she found a way to show me compassion.

The lights dimmed and Lauren's mesmerizing smile jumped off the screen. For the next few minutes, her last year of life unfolded. There were photos at the beach and of sun-dressed summer nights, of Lauren hugging her parents at graduation, and others of her belly laughing with friends. As Lauren sang "Breathless" in the background, the audience shivered. Each of us brushed back tears. I knew we were all thinking the same thing. She could have been our daughter.

Lauren's three-year relationship had ups and downs like any other teenage union. After a rocky few months tinged with fighting and weeping, Lauren broke up with her boyfriend for good during the spring of senior year. By the summer, Lauren was happy and healthy, working at the local mall and preparing for college. Her ex-boyfriend wasn't doing as well. She agreed to see him and did so without letting anyone know. Several hours later she was missing.

A woman's desire to fix things -- from a friend's problems to a loved one's bad day -- is almost instinctual. We'll never know what Lauren was thinking but we can guess. Someone she had once loved deeply was hurting and she wanted to patch up his wound. Her ex-boyfriend had become aggressive, detached. Her family and friends wanted her to move on, not see him any more. But I imagine it wasn't in her nature to turn her back on anyone. Mary spoke about her anger at Lauren for going to visit her boyfriend alone.

I paid little attention to what happened to Lauren Astley on July 3, 2011. Initially, I was shocked that a teen boy could murder his ex-girlfriend. However, with no connection to the family, the story seemed to fade into the background of my summer. Looking back now, I was a fool. Teaching my daughters about teen dating violence is a dire necessity.

That night, I came home and googled Lauren Astley. I watched the 48 Hours special that featured Lauren's life, the details of the murder and the subsequent trial of her ex-boyfriend. I heard friends speak about her kindness and loyalty as I watched the courtroom drama unfold. I was mesmerized by Mary's composure during interviews and devastated as she unraveled in the throes of the trial.

One in three teens experiences some form of abuse in a dating relationship. That means between my two best friends and me, one of us is going to have a situation on our hands. Things have to change. We have to tell our children the story of Lauren Astley. We need to explain to our daughters that a boyfriend who cuts her off from friends and family is not a good man. We have to make our teens understand that punching a wall or name-calling can lead to violence. It is never OK to go alone to visit a depressed or aggressive ex. Parental advice can save lives. Mary Dunne wants all to heed her warning.

On the way home, "Harden My Heart" came on the radio. In the song by Quarterflash, a girl gets the strength and courage to leave her man. She tells him that his words are lies. Let's teach our children about teen dating and break-up violence. Let's tell them it is not OK to be treated badly by anyone. If our children's hearts have to harden to keep them safe, I'm all for swallowing those tears.