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Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with David Wolfe, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and
Psychology at the University of Toronto and creator of The Fourth R Program

Ingles: When working with school children or youngsters in middle or high school, what are you finding really are the seeds that can lead to abusive relationship behavior later on in their lives? I’m sure that you’ll point to child maltreatment. Let’s talk about that and other influences as well.

Wolfe: Child maltreatment is definitely the number one and it’s still overlooked. It’s one of those issues that it’s like the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Everyone knows it’s there. You can’t prove it because you can’t randomly assign people to smoke or not, but we all agree it’s a significant risk factor. With child maltreatment, it affects relationships. It’s a relationship based disorder, so your view of relationships is one of victims or victimizers. You either think you have to victimize others or you think that you have to play the role of the victim. You don’t know what else to do. You’ve grown up with those types of images of relationships and without proper healthy alternatives you’ll end up repeating them whether you want to or not. It’s something you’ve learned. We all know violence is a learned behavior but we never question who is teaching it and how we can unteach it.

Ingles: Is there something else that may be less obvious that is something that your research has turned up outside of the child abuse paradigm?

Wolfe: Well, in adolescents, developmentally their job is to move away from parents and establish peers and romantic relationships and that’s what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s a very rapid transition, a very rough transition, sometimes it’s smooth, but they’re trying to figure out how to relate to other people in a new way. They try on new everything. That’s why prevention is so helpful at this stage because they’re open to new ideas, they want to be different than maybe the way their parents or their siblings were, but they don’t know how. They’re experimenting, that’s part of their job and yet we kind of wait and don’t give them enough guidance, especially if the family can’t provide healthy guidance for them.

Ingles: Well, I can remember back to high school and the sort of desperation that I and my classmates felt needing to have a dating partner and then of course the drama of breaking up. What is all that angst tied to do you think? Is it just hormones or what’s going on psychologically at that stage?

Wolfe: Well what’s going on is this process of moving away from home, from detaching to the people that were most important or least and had the most control over your life and moving into independence and autonomy. That’s what’s happening developmentally. To do that, they have to tip toe into same sex or opposite sex relationships, depending on their preference, and they have to navigate these new relationships. The way they do that of course is very much controlled by their social environment; the media, the images and expectations that others have of them, the sex roles and gender roles. That’s why it’s so difficult. If you’re a 13 year old boy, maybe you think what’s attractive to girls is being tough and showing them you love them by hitting them. Those are the things that we’re trying to correct. You would be amazed at how powerful some of those messages are for boys and girls. They really don’t know what a healthy gender role is.

Ingles: And I know a lot of people do like to point to the media. What role does popular culture, music, movies, television, the internet seem to play these days?

Wolfe: It’s a bigger and bigger role. It’s always been there. Kids do look for clues as to how to behave from the movies, from books, from everything. They always have and that’s healthy, but nowadays some of the messages are not healthy. If you have a concern about how am I supposed to deal with this? I’m angry at my girlfriend, what should I do? If you type that into Google, you’ll get some pretty horrendous responses about things you can do and they’re all negative. The advice kids rely on sometime is not healthy advice at all. They go to their peers first. They go to the internet second typically. If the peers have some ideas, some healthy messages, that’s great, but if we haven’t taught them what to say, they’ll get the wrong message too often. The media plays a very powerful role in a negative fashion but it can also play a role in a very helpful positive fashion if we provide more opportunities for that.

Ingles: Well David, I’d like to look into your Fourth R curriculum a bit to see what does address an upstream or early prevention approach to reducing dating violence and stalking or relationship homicides later in life. I’m looking at your website, which we have a link to on our Peace Talks Radio website too, at a list of preliminary desired outcomes for this program in the schools that addresses youth dating and peer violence. I know we won’t be able to cover everything, but let’s just sample a little bit of these areas. It starts with the level of the individual students and a focus on improving interpersonal skills, but what specifically, what scenarios are the students asked to grapple with here and how does the program make an impact?

Wolfe: Well let me preface that by saying that nowadays in grades seven, eight, nine, throughout the U.S. and Canada and other countries, students are supposed to be taught these types of skills, but typically they’ve been taught in a very rote didactic fashion. The teacher just explains the skills, they don’t teach them. It would be similar to teaching basketball by just explaining basketball and not practicing it.

What we did is we said, these skills really are important and they’re fun to practice and so we broke it down like that. In our province for example, kids have to learn the difference between assertion and aggression and passivity. You can explain it on the board or you can actually demonstrate it and practice it and show other kids on videos practicing it and critique the good things, the bad things, and engage the youth in it. That’s what we try to do in the classroom is to make it much more active and more fun and more realistic for kids.

Ingles: Well slow that down a little bit and give us a little bit of the distinction that students would be learning between assertion, aggression and passivity.

Wolfe: Well, they’ll see a role play where the actors are typically students that are bit older than them but look like them in terms of their demographics. They’re often from their own school. The student actors will go through a scenario like a party where there’s drinking, maybe there’s fighting, there’s intimidation. They don’t act that out. What they do is they try to engage one another in going to the party; criticizing if one doesn’t want to go or criticizing if one doesn’t want to bring booze or drugs, or they’ll make comments about their girlfriends. Then in the assertive role play, a student would be assertive and say, “No! I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to bring alcohol. I don’t want to bring alcohol,” or “If you talk about my friends that way, I don’t like it.” They have to find the right words to say. In the passive role play, of course they act passively.

The kids watch these and critique them and talk about what they like and don’t like about them and they walk away often saying, “I never really thought about the difference.” Everyone knows how to be aggressive. Not everyone does it, but there’s plenty of models of that out there. Passive is pretty easy too, but assertive is not and they have to find their own ways of doing it. They can’t be assertive the same way you or I would. It does takes some practice.

Ingles: So what they’re seeing is that assertion equals calm power somehow?

Wolfe: Right, that’s right, without being teased further and without engaging in it. What do you do to feel comfortable in a situation? You can use humor as part of your assertiveness. There’s lots of different ways you can do it, but it’s critical that you don’t engage them and allow it to turn into aggression.

Ingles: So also in the desired outcomes you list and you keep using in the literature this term “positive relations.” It might seem obvious, but what do we mean by “positive relations”?

Wolfe: Well it is kind of a general term, but it means how to relate to another person in a way that you feel good about it and they feel good about it. You’re achieving your end in that and you feel connected to them. Positive relations mean using healthy skills, pro-social skills that communicate what you’re trying to communicate without using bullying tactics, aggressive tactics, intimidation, threats and so forth.

Ingles: Well it does seem simple but it occurs to me that it may or may not be taught and certainly probably doesn’t come up too much in a household where children are abused. I think young people sort of lose sight of the personal responsibility of helping people feel good about themselves. Short of being responsible for someone else’s feelings, there is something that you can do to make a positive outcome of an interaction.

Wolfe: Right and they need to see examples of that; examples from their peers, examples that are realistic to them, not just examples from adults because they have lots and lots of examples of negative stuff out there.

Ingles: I know we have a lot of parents of young people listening. How do you mobilize parents? What exactly would they be expected to do to help young people develop healthier relationships? Again, outside of the obvious avoidance of abuse and neglect, but something that might be more in the modeling category.

Wolfe: Well, their job begins day one and it’s very, very important of course. Kids will indeed be watching you all the time and they learn from that and they repeat it. If they see, for example, dad being bullying or screaming or yelling and it works or even if it doesn’t work, even if the police arrive, they may repeat that because they don’t know better or they’re upset and when they get upset that’s how they express it.

The parents’ job doesn’t end when they go to high school. It certainly continues. Their job is to support communication with their teen around what they’re going through at school. Tough to do at that age, but the modeling here is to continue to demonstrate healthy relationships at home with siblings and with one another. Parents need to be open to listening to the situations that their son or daughter faces as opposed to saying, “If I ever catch you doing that,” or “If you ever go to a place like that,” that just tells the kid don’t talk about it, don’t ever let them know.

What we try to encourage parents to do is say, “You’re going to run into some difficult decisions. It’s very important that you keep yourself safe and your friends safe.” We suggest that parents give their kids ground rules for each grade; grade eight to grade nine and then the rules change as they get older. Those are the conversations parents need to be having as opposed to waiting and punishing if they make mistakes that they don’t always know are mistakes at the time.

Ingles: Well, obviously avoiding modeling abusive behavior between each other. Have you looked into the value of parents actually thinking more specifically about what does modeling a good relationship look like? That strikes me as being overlooked. You try to hide the negative, but you don’t necessarily show what a healthy positive relationship looks like for your kids.

Wolfe: You’re right; we don’t talk enough about that. What a good, healthy relationship means is that a person can have an argument, a disagreement and even raise their voice and become emotionally engaged, but not intimidate, not threaten, not hit and not punish in any way and resolve the argument. Even if it can’t be resolved in reality, like a decision can’t be made, you come to an end point. The kids need to see that among their parents. They need to see that mom and dad can have an argument, they can have a fight. You could call it a fight, but a fight means that they’re really angry at each other, but they don’t hurt each other and they don’t use abusive language. At the end, they make up or they feel that they’ve gotten the issue out on the table, they have come to some resolution. With older kids especially, with teens and preteens, it’s important that the parents go to them and say, “You probably heard us really mad last night. Sometimes adults get like that, sometimes kids do and here is how we resolved it. Here is what we were mad about,” because otherwise kids will form in their minds that one or both parents might be at fault and they’ll start to go down the wrong road. They need to hear their parents struggling with these issues and resolving them nonviolently.

Ingles: Right because the mantra is never argue in front of the kids, but then the kids never learn to handle inevitable conflict in their own relationships.

Wolfe: That’s right. The argument has to be respectful. It’s that simple. If you don’t know how to do that or can’t do it, then you are definitely staining your kids’ own relationships.

Ingles: Well David Wolfe, in the context of our program today, which initiates from my experience with a friend being lost to relationship homicide, in wrapping up, make your case for how the work that you’re doing and the programs that you’ve developed can really have an impact on reducing the number of horrible tragedies that we see all too often in our news.

Wolfe: Well Paul, that’s an easy case for me to make because we’re talking about a public health issue now. We’re talking about roughly 30% of children are estimated to be abused in their lifetime. That’s based on adult samples retrospectively as well as current samples of youth abused in a way that may not require protective services, but they’re growing up with negative relationship models. That’s a public health issue. That means a lot of people out there aren’t really exposed to as good of models as they could be and may make a lot of mistakes in their relationships. So from a public health perspective, it’s like fluoride in the water; everyone needs to get a bit of a dose of healthy relationships.

Everyone needs to have alternatives to what they expect in a relationship. Some shifts need to be made in how people learn respect and if we don’t teach it in schools, it’s haphazard, very haphazard and they may make many errors in their relationships before they might learn their lesson.

We can reduce that 30% of child abuse, 30% of domestic violence. I don’t know what affects it would have in the long term on homicidal violence, but we have to keep in mind that with any prevention, the biggest challenge is that there will still be some tragedies, but that doesn’t mean we give up the prevention. It means that we try even harder. By offering programs like this through the schools, it means that everyone gets a bit of inoculation. The kids who need it more hopefully will get more as we get more resources on the topic. At this stage, everyone needs to increase their vocabulary around this topic, their awareness around this topic and I think we will see a significant reduction in the incidents of dating violence and domestic violence.

Ingles: And finally, can you think of one moment in this curriculum, whether it be an exercise or a film or something that you’ve seen roll out or helped prepare yourself, that struck you as like whoa, this is really a powerful message? Can you think of a powerful moment in the curriculum where David Wolfe can say to himself, “I can feel that if young people see this that it’s going to be something that they will remember and will have an impact on reducing the occurrence of dating violence or just help them with gender roles in general.”?

Wolfe: A couple things stand out. One is just a simple exercise we do about naming the violence. I’ve seen videos of it. We’ve taped the classrooms so I can study them or look at them without sitting in and interrupting. To see boys going around trying to figure out if this is a form of violence and what kind of violence it is even though it’s not punching someone. Maybe it’s borrowing money you don’t intend to pay back. Is that a form of abuse? Well, yes it is and they need the language for that. The boys will look at each other and scratch their heads and realize, yeah, it goes in this pile. That to me really shows that, something we may take for granted or not, they really need to have that clarity and the same for harassment and so forth. They need to first learn the language.

The other message that we’ve seen that the kids told us later on that had been very useful to them is responsibilities in a relationship and especially when you breakup because we know that those are the most dangerous times. They practiced some of that. What are your responsibilities if you want to breakup with someone? What are your responsibilities if someone wants to break up with you? How do you handle the emotions? They need to think it through, practice, hear what others have to say so that they’re not thrown into that situation unprepared. Everyone has to breakup at some time or another and we want them to do it in a nonviolent way.

Ingles: What are some of the responsibilities, just a few?

Wolfe: Communicating more clearly, not just saying, “Well, I don’t really know.” Not being intimidating or threatening or angry or not responding that way if someone else says, “I think we should take a break.” Not using abusive language. Those are the key ones. What they will see in the movies are extreme emotional reactions because that’s entertaining. They don’t know how to handle the feelings; the feelings of loss, the feelings of anger, the feelings of betrayal or whatever it might be. “Who do I talk to?” “How do I listen?” Those are the things they practice with their peers and they can laugh and have fun with it, but the reality is that they are learning important skills in doing that.

Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Alexandra Smith, who oversees a program called
"Start Strong Bronx" in New York that makes use of "The Fourth R" curriculum in middle schools.

Ingles: You mentioned earlier maybe one or two examples, but could you go into some more example then of lessons or exercises that young people are asked to try that are making a difference and specifically probably towards this idea of dating violence or relationship conflict that may later on lead to sad and tragic stories?

Smith: About a year ago I did a focus group with students who had had Fourth R and I asked them, “I want you to be really real with me because” I said, “I know the guys that wrote this curriculum. If you don’t like it, I want to tell them that you didn’t like it. If you liked it, I want them to know what you liked about it.” So I asked them, I said, “I just want you to be real because you can’t get in trouble if you don’t like this.”

This one girl raised her hand and she goes, “Oh, I like Fourth R.” I said, “Well, can you be specific with me? What do you really like about Fourth R?” She said, “Well, it taught me the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.” I said, “Well, can you tell me more about this?” She said, “Well, my older sister, who is in high school, was having an argument with her boyfriend and she was arguing and yelling at him and it was getting really ugly. I turned to her and I said, ‘Are you being assertive or are you being aggressive?’”

I couldn’t believe it, here is a seventh grader teaching her high school older sister the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.

She said, “Because if you’re aggressive, your boyfriend is going to treat you badly because you have bad behaviors, but if you’re being assertive, you’re just standing up for yourself and you’re using ‘I’ statements and you’re telling him how you feel.”

I think that is a very specific and measurable outcome of Fourth R because here is a seventh grade girl telling a high school older girl how to behave in a relationship to keep the relationship in a safer manner.

Another young girl told me, she said, “Oh,” she said, “I don’t have a good relationship with my mother. My mother and I argue all the time, but after I had learned from Fourth R that we have to talk about our feelings, I told my mother, “I have to tell you how I feel because if I don’t tell you how I feel, I’m going to get angry and it’s not going to be good for me. So I’m going to tell you how I feel and that’s just the way it’s going down.”

And that’s a great lesson. Here is this kid who is understanding that her feelings are really valuable, that her feelings are important to herself and they’re important in relationship to her mother. Can you imagine what kind of relationship she’s going to have with a partner in the future? She’s going to have the ability to express herself. She’s going to have the ability to say, “I matter. My feelings matter.” I think those are really measurable outcomes and again, like that young boy who was able to resolve a conflict without hitting somebody. He was able to take the lessons and directly apply it outside of the classroom into the hallways. I think these are measurable outcomes from learning these types of behaviors, these types of lessons.

Ingles: I think it was David Wolfe who told me that part of the difference in the Fourth R curriculum is that it’s not just a health education lecture that comes in as a school assembly or after school program, that it is a curriculum that entails very specific exercises that the students are asked to engage in and not asked to just sit and listen. Could you give some examples of those? For example, try to paint a picture of this for television if we came in with cameras and were allowed to shoot a picture of this. What would we see? What would it look like?

Smith: It’s one of the things I like so much about this particular curriculum, Fourth R; the teachers become facilitators and the students teach each other. For example, there is one exercise called “Post-It, Pile-It,” and what you do is you give each kid a stack of Post-It notes. I like giving them different colors because the kids like the different colors, they like how sticky it is, it’s really relatable to them, they like to play around with things. Then you break them down into groups of up to four students and so now they’re in a group of four students, each student has a stack of Post-It notes and they all have a pen. The facilitator or the teacher will ask a question. For example, “Can you tell me what some of the stressors in seventh grade might be? On each piece of Post-It note, I want you to write one answer and now you have 90 seconds to answer this.” Now the kids are busy scribbling down things anywhere from “The dog ate my homework,” to “The stars aren’t aligned for me,” but each kid gets to participate.

You could ask a variety of questions with this particular exercise, the Post-It Pilot exercise. You could ask questions such as, “If a friend of yours came to you and said that they were worried about their partner,” that would be the question, “what are some resources you could offer?” Then they would all sit there and brainstorm about some possible solutions to this question. There’s a variety. You can ask questions like, “What are some possible solutions.” You could ask, “What would be some resources to offer somebody?”

You could also say, “What are some danger and warning signs of teen dating violence?” If that were the first question, then everybody would know what all the dangers and warning signs are, then the next segway would be, the next question would say something to the effect of, “Well, if a friend of yours came to you with these warning signs, what could you do or what could you say to help this person?” Then they brainstorm in their groups about possible solutions. You’re teaching them how to come up with solutions for any possible kind of conflict. You could even say, “If conflict were to escalate in a relationship, what could you do instead of having the conflict reach a level where it became dangerous? What could you do? Where could you go?” Then each of the students would write down one answer per Post-It and they would brainstorm amongst each other some of the possible solutions.

Ingles: I have also thought about the drama around separation in relationships and where that comes from and the sort of thinking like I can’t live without you and the possessiveness of relationships. I’m wondering if the program goes in that direction in certain exercises or if you could address that in terms of a theme that might even come up or be tackled by Fourth R and the Start Strong.

Smith: Violence is a choice and we can use all kinds of excuses, but it’s really blaming other people for our own behaviors. Violence as a choice is not acceptable. There is jealousy and there are people who are jealous. There are people who are jealous and abusive. There are people who are angry. We all get angry, but it’s what we do with our anger that gets us into trouble. There are angry people who are not abusive and there are angry people who are abusive. I think that jealousy is an excuse for abuse and I think it’s a rationalization and justification.

I think that we need to teach young people about the early warning signs of abuse which is if someone falls in love too quickly with you, be suspicious because nobody knows us that well that quickly. A healthy long-term relationship takes time. It takes time to learn how to trust somebody. It takes time to learn how to love somebody because we don’t know them. We don’t know someone in a week or two. If someone is telling you that they love you in a week or two, chances are they love the illusion because they don’t know all of us. You don’t know somebody until you’ve had your first argument with them and sometimes that can take a long time. Is it a healthy argument? Every couple argues, but it’s how you argue. Do you stay on point? I think that we need to teach people what the warning signs are so we can leave before any ugliness happens. If we get out of a relationship early, chances are it’s not going to escalate to the type of violence that I’m so sorry your friend was the victim of.

Ingles: Thank you. I’m wondering if society wouldn’t be more well-served by recognizing that a lifetime can include lots of relationships and that a breakup isn’t the end of the world and it might be the best thing to do to show you love somebody to let them go. I’m wondering if these kinds of themes come up.

Smith: Not in the Fourth R. I can talk about it separately from the Fourth R if you would like me to.

Ingles: Sure, well, go ahead.

Smith: I think we need to have relationships early. Our earliest relationships such as friendships teach us how to have adult relationships. We need to date in middle school and high school because we need the practice. Who are we? We need to realize that we need to understand who we are before we understand who we are in relationships. I think that practicing relationships, practicing having good self control, practicing having self esteem is important.

We do need to teach young people that most likely, but not in every case, we’re not going to marry the first person that we date. It’s practice. I think that we need to teach young people that having someone breakup with you doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. It might mean that they’re not the right person for you.

We can only be who we are and we can’t try to change ourselves. If we try to change ourselves to be loved then someone is going to fall in love with a false self and if someone falls in love with that false person, the illusion, we can never live up to that illusion. I think that we need to teach ourselves at any age (I work with people from eleven years old to seventy years old) that we need to be true to ourselves and we have to also understand that who we are is okay. We’re loveable the way we are.

I do think that some people, especially youth, believe that if someone breaks up with you, it’s the end of the world. Well that’s part of adolescents. The prefrontal cortex hasn’t been developed enough yet to realize that it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of maybe today or tomorrow, but you know what? Next week there is going to be someone else.

We need to have a support system. If you’re a parent, you need to be with your child and say, “Someone else will come along. This is not the only Coca Cola can in your desert.”

We need to have this practice. We need to have people learn the good qualities of relationships. Maybe you didn’t like that relationships so much, but you didn’t know what was better for you.

I think that we need to give support systems to our youth. We need to teach them that we need to have several relationships, whether it’s friendships, whether it’s relationships with adults, parents, care givers, this is how we learn how to have good strong boundaries, that we can say “no,” that we can say “yes,” that we can keep ourselves safe. Breaking up with somebody, there are more people out there. This is not the only person for you. I think that if that person has a good strong support system, they can get the help that they need.

Ingles: Why wouldn’t all of what you just said be an important part of the Fourth R or a program that talks about healthy relationships?

Smith: Well that’s absolutely it, the Fourth R could certainly accommodate how to have a healthy breakup. What do you do after the breakup? What do you do when you don’t want someone to breakup with you and you have anger? What do you do with these feelings? It absolutely can address these things based on the developmental level of the students. Our group sometimes is very young, like eleven or twelve years old and developmentally I don’t think that they’re at a stage where they are even conceptualizing a breakup. I think they’re more at the point of friendships and how to delay and refuse behaviors. I think that might be a better question posed to an older, more mature group of students, maybe ninth or tenth grade.