The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Q&A: Healthy Relationships
Don’t let the past sabotage new relationships
Natasha Santos

We enter relationships—any relationship—with baggage from our past. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, our pasts can often come up in our day-to-day dealings with loved ones. Especially for those in foster care, certain touches or tones may make us unreasonably defensive or angry because we’re reminded of times when similar gestures were meant to harm us. For instance, one time when someone told me I was lying, I completely flipped because it reminded me of my foster mother who would often accuse me of lying.

To find out how we can break the patterns we’ve grown up with, I talked with Rebecca Weston, clinical director of the Brooklyn Children’s Psychotherapy Project.

Q: How can past experiences affect teens’ romantic relationships?

A: We learn how we deserve to be treated through seeing our parents’ relationships. We also learn how to be intimate with other people through family, for better or for worse. If we’re very close to a parent that has difficulty parenting, is gone a lot, or is abusive, we learn that love might involve violence, pain, or rejection.

Q: How do you know when a relationship is positive or unhealthy?

A: Good relationships make you feel confident to pursue goals important to you. Does the relationship empower you? Does it make you feel healthy and happy in school, work, job, home? If yes, it’s a good, healthy relationship, and you should hang on to it.

Unhealthy relationships are almost the opposite. The most obvious unhealthy relationships involve physical violence or forced sexual or physical intimacy. Violence can be physical (you get hurt), emotional (you begin to feel you don’t deserve respect), or threats to your safety (you’re afraid that the person may hurt you or a loved one).

If the relationship corrodes or undermines the way you feel in other parts of your life—if you begin to feel isolated, afraid to talk about the relationship, disconnected from friends, or pressured to be a certain way that just doesn’t feel right—then you don’t want to continue it.

Q: Is it a given that our relationships will turn out like the relationships we had growing up? How can we change them?

A: No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, we are told, “If you were abused as a kid, you’ll be abusive.” That can set you up to feel that there’s nothing you can do to help yourself. You can make changes in the relationships you choose. It’s not easy. We have models in our heads from early childhood, but we can make decisions and we can consciously decide to change.

The best way to change your pattern is to look back and face your past. There’s no way to avoid a painful reckoning with your past. Don’t shove it aside and say, “It’s not going to affect me.” It affects you whether or not you want it to.

Take a look at what happened in your past. Be thoughtful: how does that make me feel about myself? How am I reacting to those things now? Look at it with a friend, counselor, or mentor in a safe environment.

Q: Are there signs that you shouldn’t date someone?

A: There are certainly red flags. If you’ve just met them and they’re asking for your address and contact information, or they’re not giving you very much room, or if they want to rush into sex, something is wrong. If they’re not interested in you as a person, that’s not good.

If you know them mostly through partying or drinking, or know they have a history of being with a lot of different people very quickly, that can be a sign that they’re not safe to be with.

image by YC-Art Dept

Be mindful of what you feel inside. If you feel pressure to behave a certain way or feel pushed, pay attention to that feeling, regardless of what other people say or how it might feel to reject that person.

If someone does not feel safe for whatever reason, you should listen to that caution.

Q: Sometimes I notice that people blow things out of proportion. Like, say you grew up being accused of being a thief and your boyfriend says he’s missing a CD. That can turn into a huge fight. Why?

A: If in the past you were frequently being accused of something, or told that the abuse was your fault, like, “It’s your fault that I hit you,” or were automatically blamed for things that went wrong, you might end up adopting a view of the world like, “I can’t trust anyone because they’ll think I’m bad.”

You’re primed to be blamed or hurt, so when someone does make a casual statement, the whole history comes back. You think, “I can’t handle it anymore, people always blame me.” And you blow up. It can be hard to sort out the present moment from the whole history of your feelings, because your emotions are all confused.

Q: If you notice past issues coming up how can you deal with them?

A: Noticing that your past is still with you is a great first step. The most common thing we do is tell ourselves the past doesn’t matter. But it does.

Once you notice a pattern, the next step is talking to the person who it’s coming up with and saying things like, “I think I overreacted because of these reasons, and I’m sorry about that, I’m going to try to deal with that past situation.”

Then you can speak to a close friend, therapist, or counselor about what happened in the past and how you think it’s connected to troubles you’re having in the present. You can also help yourself by writing in a journal. Keep track of when and why the past comes back up. Like, “Whenever someone is late to meet me, what comes into my head is my dad never showing up. When it happens, I need to remember it doesn’t mean I’m rejected and abandoned, they’re just late.” You can get to know your own pattern.

Q: How do you know when you’re ready for a sexual relationship, and when you are not?

A: You don’t always know. The most important thing is whether you feel that the person is someone you can be honest with. Like, if you’ve never had sex, are you comfortable admitting that to the person? If you are going to have sex, do you feel comfortable talking about the need to use protection? If the answers are no, I think you’re not ready for a sexual relationship. Safe exploration of sexuality is not a bad thing, but you have to be ready to say, “I don’t want to go further than this,” or, “I’m scared about this.”

Q: How can you deal with an abusive relationship?

A: Girls and young women sometimes feel they don’t deserve any better, so they either ignore abuse and hope it goes away, or feel isolated and keep it a secret. Sometimes people don’t even know the relationship is abusive. Many times people don’t seek help because they feel ashamed or feel like they’re bad.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s common. Seek out help from a friend, counselor, social worker, or therapist. People are there to help you out, to give you support and confidence. You do deserve better. Even if you’ve done things wrong, you don’t deserve to be treated in an abusive way.

Go to for more on avoiding abusive relationships.

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