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Update 2012 - In around 2009 I heard from Shevaun. She wrote to thank me for what I wrote about her From time to time we have chatted. I don't want to break her trust by posting what she has told me, but I will say it pretty well confirms everything I write about on this site. - S. Hein
(From July 2003)
In the news recently is the story of 12 year old Shevaun Pennington. Depending on what you read, she either ran away or she was "abducted." Most people around the world are probably relieved that she is now "safe" at home. But based on my experiences with teens and pre-teens that spend hours talking to me on the Internet, as well as based on my experiences with children and adolescents IRL (in real life), I would like to present an alternative perspective for consideration. Shevaun might not actually feel very safe at home. And she might not have felt safe before she left. Further, it might not be Toby Studabaker that she needs protection from.
Mary Marsh, the Director of the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in England has reported that parents are responsible for nearly 80% of child murders in England. She wrote this shortly after the two girls were killed in England, Holly and Jessica. She wanted to remind the public that most child abuse occurs at the hands of the parents, not from strangers. She called the level of child abuse by parents "a national disgrace." (Reference) While we might not see bruises on Shevaun, we don't know what kind of psychological and emotional treatement she had received from her parents, or what she will receive in the future. One thing we can say with certainty is that whenever a young person has any interest in leaving their home, something more is going on behind the closed doors of the home that we don't know about. Here is a personal case which helps illustrate this.
In January of 2002, I happened to meet a family living in Canberra, Australia. The parents and I got along well at first and they invited me to stay with them. During this time I asked my usual questions to their 14 year old daughter. These questions include things like "How respected do you feel by your mom and dad from 0-10." I showed this teen, Anna, some of my writing on teens. She agreed with it, but at first she was hesitant to express herself honestly. I could tell there was a lot she was keeping inside. On the second day there I asked her to tell me how she really felt about something. Then she said something I will never forget. She spoke with the purity and directness that only children and teenagers have, and one which gets buried behind many layers of defenses later in life. She said, simply, "But we were always taught to lie about our feelings."
A few days later I was eating with the family around the table. I was talking about how some teenage girls tell me that their father has never hugged them and never told them he loves them. Anna, the 14 year old, said in a fairly matter of fact tone, "Dad never hugs me, or said "I love you" to me." There was a deathly silence. I looked at Vince, the father. He stared blankly. Then someone changed the subject.
Later I apologized for putting him in that awkward situation. He said, "No. It was fair enough."
Over the next few weeks I learned that the father and mother had both hit all four of their daughters. Anna told me her father only stopped hitting her when she was about 12. She also told me her parents never wanted children. She said they only had them because they didn't believe in birth control for religious reasons. The mother, Sue, later confirmed this, adding that she was tired of being a mother.
There are many more details I could add, such as how the mother would shout at the 6 year old twins children for whistling in their rooms when she was trying to read the paper at the kitchen table, and how she would hit them if they didn't get ready for bed quickly enough, and how Vince had told Anna "I have put up with you for 14 years", and how Vince once told me that his relationship with God was more important than his relationship with his daughters -- but I will get to the main point.
Not long after I left their house Anna called me and asked me to come get her. She wanted to leave home. I was about two and a half hours away. We talked things over for a long time. Anna seemed very serious.
I felt very protective of Anna. She was living in fear of her parents. Though they didn't hit her anymore, they didn't need to. She was sufficiently trained to be afraid of them, so she kept her real feelings to herself and went along with whatever they insisted upon. Vince, by the way, is an ordained minister. He once quoted a passage from the Bible that says "Love does not insist upon is own way." Many times I thought what a good quote that was -- and wished he would literally practice what he preached.
One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't go and get Anna that night. Had I been living ten minutes away, I probably would have. I feel guilty for not wanting to start driving at 9 pm or whatever it was. Anna wanted to spend more time with me. She was desperate for someone to listen to her and take her seriously. Talking to me, was for her, like breathing fresh air after having been suffocated for years. I also enjoyed talking to Anna. At first I hadn't taken her very seriously, but she quickly put me in my place. After a day or two at their house, I asked her how much she felt judged by me, expecting a low number. But that is not what she gave me. When I asked why, she very articulately told me the many ways I had been judging, mocking and disrespecting her. From then on I was determined to improve my numbers. I want the teens I talk with to feel judged 0 and respected 10.
By the time Anna called me that night, my numbers had gone up. And her respect for her parents had gone down. They were starting to feel threatened by our friendship and by Anna's interest in helping me with my work. They were starting to clamp down on her. At a time when she needed more freedom, they started giving her less. Between this and the fact she was getting her feelings affirmed about herself and her parents, she had decided she wanted out.
I suggested that she talk to her parents the next day before doing anything so seemingly impulsive. She reluctantly agreed, but when she tried to talk to them the next day, they flatly refused to give her any more freedom. When they did that, she became extremely defiant, and they panicked. According to the mother, Anna refused to speak to them. She said it was as if they had lost their daughter. The mother finally grabbed her by the arm and shook her. Exactly what she said to Anna that day, I will never know. But I know Anna's spirit was broken on that day. She has never been the same.
I still feel guilty because I was not there for Anna on that day. I didn't help her when she reached out to me. I didn't offer to stand by her as she talked to her parents. I left her outnumbered and unprotected from their overwhelming psychological power.
Her situation was nothing social services would be interested in. I had already spoken to them. Anna had no one else to protect her from the emotional abuse and neglect at home. Nor did the younger siblings have any one to protect them. Anna would sometimes also hit them, not knowing any other way, and never seeing love and respect modeled in her house. So Anna and her sisters needed me to be their advocate. But since that day Anna and the next daughter, Juanita, stopped telling me the truth about what is happening at home. The next time I saw Sue I received a long lecture about how there was nothing wrong with their family and how I was trying to break the family apart, and "the next thing she knew, social services would be at her door."
I wish social services would have investigated the family and given them some family counseling. But they were overloaded with more serious cases, as most social services workers are. One of the counselors even told me that they never prosecute emotional abuse cases. They are just too busy and they cases are too hard to prove. Whether what was happening inside that family was "abuse" is a matter of interpretation. But I know what I saw for myself. I know that this was not an emotionally, nor even a physically safe environment. There was little respect or regard for the girls' feelings. So I would call it abusive.
Before that day, Anna and I could talk for hours. Once we talked on the phone for seven or eight hours during the night. Talking to her was so refreshing. She is such an intelligent, insightful person. One of the first things she had said to show me this insight was when she was telling me that her father wants to help reconcile the situation in the Middle East. I admired him for this, but she resented it. I didn't understand till she said, "I think he should reconcile things in his own family first." We talked about that and I realized how much awareness Anna had. Talking to her was more intellectually fulfilling than talking to the majority of people twice her age.
It was this experience more than anything else that helped inspire me to start taking my work with teens on the Internet more seriously. I saw how alone they felt in their homes and in their schools. Anna said she had no interest in talking to the majority of her schoolmates. She simply was much too far advanced in her thinking. Her parents would criticize her for not having more friends, but they really didn't understand. When teens say "My parents don't understand me" few people take this seriously. But I spent enough time listening to her parents to know that they really didn't understand Anna. Her father didn't even know that she didn't believe in God. She was vastly underestimated by them, as most intelligent teens are by their parents and teachers. And it is no great secret that many, if not most, exceptionally intelligent young people are also bored in school and at home. Their minds are being wasted.
So I can understand why Shevaun would yearn for someone to take her seriously. Why she would yearn for someone to listen to her. Why she would yearn to be treated as older. And why she would yearn for someone to hold her. I have had teenage females calling me crying saying how badly they just want a hug. But they don't want one from their parents. Perhaps once, they did yearn to be hugged by their mother or father, but after years of distance, after years of feeling emotionally or physically unsafe, they simply lose this desire. But they still need affection and connection.
I don't know what Toby Studabaker's true intentions were. Nor do I know what the two of them did together, or whether it was unhealthy for Shevaun. Many people immediately assume that sex between two people of their ages somehow has to always be unhealthy for the younger person. Judith Levine has argued against such broad generalizations, however, in her book Harmful to Minors. Here is one quote from the book:
I caution us not to prejudge Toby, and to instead try to feel some compassion for him rather than just labeling him. I also I urge anyone connected to the case to give Shevaun a safe place to live for a while so she will have the opportunity to tell her side of the story without being influenced by her family. All parents, but especially emotionally abusive and emotionally intelligent ones know how to manipulate their children. (see dark side article) They have become masters at it over years of practice. They have many tools in their toolkit: fear, guilt, pressure, etc. They can also use false caring.
According to one article Shevaun was tricked into coming home. The mother went on the news and made a loving-sounding statement, which she was apparently advised to do by psychologists in order to deceive her daughter. Here is a direct quote from an article from the British paper, The Times:
Other EQI.org Topics:
After reading that, I am wondering how Shevaun felt when she realized she had been tricked. I am also wondering if anyone is asking her. Or if anyone has ever asked her how much she feels respected by her parents from 0-10, or if anyone has ever asked her any of the many questions which I have been pleading with adults to start asking children and teenagers. Of course it is not enough to ask. The young person must feel safe to give an emotionally honest answer. But if young person has suffered years of invalidation, this is not likely to happen around their parents. Also, many teens are unwilling to make their parents look bad and will blatantly lie to protect them. I am also wondering if Shevaun and other young people who hear about the mother's tactic will have more respect for parents and authority, knowing how Shevaun was tricked.
In my experiences, both online and in real life, teenage females will only spend hours talking to an older male when their emotional needs have not been met at home. I realize many men are exploiting young females sexually and view them as sex objects. I am strongly opposed to this. Yet these females have been taught in their own families that they have little or no value. So being valued for their bodies is at least an improvement of sorts to them. A young woman who is truly loved and respected at home will not be at all interested in sexual conversations or relationships with older men. She will not even be interested in romantic conversations. She will be too busy doing other things and she will be satisfied with males closer to her own age. It is no secret that women of all ages look for a "father figure" only when their own father has failed adequately fill this role. The adolescent females, who spend hours talking to me, without exception, have had poor or no relationships with their fathers.
Let me share one of my Internet experiences. The first teen I met on the Internet I had found by chance. I wasn't going into chatrooms and trying to lure innocent girls to have sex with me, as is the common stereotype of older males who talk to adolescent females. Instead, I happened to surf to this site: http://Freeopendiary.com. I read a recent entry which was called "Can someone please help me?!" I clicked on the entry and have been talking to the person who wrote it, Sarah, ever since. That was in September 2000. At the time she told everyone on the Internet she was 14. I loved talking to her, but it was because of her mind, not because of her body or her age. About a year later she admitted she had lied about her age and she was only 11 when we started talking. She was afraid I would reject her when she told me the truth. She couldn't believe I actually loved her for who she was and I understood how badly she wanted to be taken more seriously. To this day we are still talking and I have still never seen a picture of her. My point is that I didn't deceive Sarah. I didn't need to deceive her, or any of the teens I talk to. I don't need to send them gifts and I don't send them pictures of pornography. I simply listen to them. I treat them with respect. I show them I care. I empathize with them. I show them I understand. This is why they talk to me. Not because I have deceived them.
We don't know what has been happening inside Shevaun's home. But I can speculate based on my personal experiences. I will refrain from doing that right now, but instead I will refer you to this list which a 14 year old, Stephanie P., who coincidently also lives in England, prepared for me about her mother. The British, one hardly needs to add, are not known for their emotional warmth. And in England, as in the USA, it is still legal to hit and slap your children and adolescent daughters, unlike in many European countries. (See related article) Stephanie had told me that she hated herself and I knew this reflected how she was treated by her mother, so I asked her to try to think of times she felt hated by her mother, Susanna. She prepared this list
I am also trying to help another teen, 13, in England, whose mother tells her she is "too sensitive," and lays guilt-trips on her for "trying to break up the family" by reporting the abuse inside the family. When I told this teen I admired her for speaking out about being abused, she replied: i kinda wish i hadnt. my mum is being sooooooooooooo horrible. and social services r coming to my house. i hate them.
I asked why she hated them and she said, "cause there not very nice. i like one of them though but the other one said i was making it up for attentiom which really upset me. i started crying.i hate crying in front of people
As I am writing this I am also chatting to a 17 year old. She just sent me a message that she was crying. After some gentle coaxing, and sharing a recent experience of my own, I convinced her to explain why she was crying. Here is what she wrote
I hear these kinds of things nearly every day. I know that some teens have lied to me and some are being dramatic, but there are too many real cases of teen suicide, teen pregnancies, runaways, self-harm etc. for them all to be lying. If an older man had felt empathy for this young woman I am chatting with now, felt protective of her and shown her any form of love whatsoever when she was younger, would we be right in prejudging him? Would it be best for us to simply lock him away just because of his age and her age? Just because of two numbers without knowing anything more? Or would it be better to take a closer look at the relationship? Would it be a better investment of our tax dollars to try to help the two people have a healthy relationshp, or to educate them both as to why the relationship was might be unhealthy, or how either or both of them might get hurt, and how they could each find healthy ways of meeting their needs? And would it be worthwhile to consider the family situation of the younger person, or of both people, so we might learn from it and perhaps be able to prevent such dramas in the future?
If we knew that Shevaun was, for example, being sexually abused by her father, and/or hit by her mother, and she had asked Toby to help her get out, would we feel any differently about him? If we knew that she had experimented with drugs to try to stop her pain, and he had been trying to help her get off of drugs, would we then feel any differently about him? And do we have any compassion whatsoever for this man who had recently lost his wife?
Toby wanted to be Shevaun's hero. I understand this. Sarah told me once that the name of her folder with my emails is called "My Hero." I want to make a difference in someone's life. I want to be someone's hero. People have also prejudged me and my intentions, so I know how quick some people are to judge and condemn. I wonder how far we have really progressed in society from the days when people were stoned to death. In the Bible it says a disobedient child should be taken to the town elders and stoned to death. (Reference) How much have we really learned about the cause and effect relationships between parents and children since then? (See related article on blaming depression on "chemical imbalances")
Maybe Toby was this girl's hero. Or maybe he could have been had the two of them received counseling from non-judgmental people. A lot of money will be spent now on trials and lawyers. I believe this money could be much better spent. Is Toby a "bad" person? Is he "evil"? Should he be punished? If so, what should we do? Stone him to death? Who should make such decisions? Someone who understands teenagers and their needs? Or someone who does not?
I talked to Sarah about Shevaun and Toby yesterday. She said, "Jesus Christ. Why don't they leave them alone?"
Sarah, I believe, has exceptional insight and intuition. She is rarely wrong about her perception of things. This was her first reaction. When she read the story from the Times, she was even more upset. Here are her comments as she was reading. Her screen name is "This hurt consumes me"
Later Sarah wrote a journal entry about the couple.
Still later as we were chatting I asked if she thinks they had sex. Here is her reply (lol = laugh out loud)
As I laugh at her down-to-earth humor, I wonder: Why do adults make things so complicated?
See also teen Heather W's comments on this article
About the Author
Steve Hein is a the editor of http://eqi.org one of the leading sites on emotional intelligence. He has extensive experience in working with emotionally abused, depressed, suicidal, and self-harming adolescents.
How much do you feel respected by your mom/dad from 0-10?
How much do you feel judged by your mom/dad from 0-10?
How much do you feel approved of...
How much do you feel lectured to...
How much do you feel over-controlled..
hated by my mother when...
k for starters i gotta get the hell outta this place.... iim so damn sick of not being appreciated for nething i do, its like i dont even exist, the only damn reason im here is for the money - he wouldnt have wanted me to come otherwise, this is the second time ive been deceived by my own fucking family , damn i feel like such an idiot
i dont kno y i actuallly thot this place would be diff from mom's guess that is what i get for trusting ppl . well fuck that , i dont trust my dad nemore .. or neone else in the family
im a damn doormat for all to walk on, im too nice , and i hate it, i hate myself b/c im surrounded by a buncha assholes who could care lesss if i lived or died ...
somedays i wish it was jus over , cuz the pain is too much to bear , n i really dont have neone around here who will support me emotionally and i need it sooo bad , i cant take nemore of this bullshit , its not worth it . i jus wanna get the hell outta here. maybe i can get a fresh start somewhere else. it jus kills me that i even have to do this, this is the second "home"
i feel like a damned orphan ..... im jus completely , mentally, emotionally , physically ALONE..... no matter what i do or say or try to do to amke myself feel better it jus doesnt work cuz ive got this damn wall built around my heart to keep myself from gettin hurt nemore
ive totally lost it ..... somedays i want to sleep the day away , when n if i do sleep .... i dont wanna wake up to the same shit n turmoil , i needa a damn family , i am very independent , but i need ppl to be there for me , and actually care about me... cuz w/o ppl like them i lose hope n fall deeper into depression , i needa mom, but my mom dont need me.... nor does she really give a shit what happens , my dad is such a thotless jerk , all he cares about is himself , he helps my sister out a lot , i guess im not good enuf for him .... ya enuf of this bullshit
Deuteronomy 18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
(Here is an interesting discussion of this)
Well, I don't know how many of you know the story about the 12 year old girl that "ran away" with a 31 year old U.S. marine. I first heard about it yesturday on the news. Today my friend sent me a link with the story. I'll give you the short version of it before I give you my opinion.
The girl and this guy had been emailing each other and getting really close. Profilers have studied the huge number of messages between the pair for clues to their thoughts. They have developed a very strong relationship. They love each other and have strong feelings for each other, a source said. They planned to meet. The girl told her mother she needed her passport for proof of her identity. Her and this guy met and left together. They got the girl to come back home by having her mother say to her that she wasn't upset with her and didn't mind her having this guy as her boyfriend, and she just wanted her to come home. I understand that shes got feelings for him and he may have feelings for her, she said. Im actually quite relieved that hes still with her in a way, because hes obviously helping to look after her. As long as she comes back, she can even come back with him, Im not bothered. I just want her back. So the girl went back home.
What I read name-called the two of them a lot. They said she was addicted to the internet. They called him a paedophile. They gave a little background on him... that he had child pornography on his home computer. He was in a religious class of some kind. He was a marine. But they didn't give much, if any, information on this girl and her life at home. I'm just guessing though, that if her mother will lie to her to get her to come home, then she must live in a pretty emotionally abusive place... at least! In what I read, it said that the first thing the mother said was, "how are you?" and "give me a hug." I wonder how the mother could lie to her daughter, get her back after probably a really difficult time for the girl, and then demand a hug!?!
I've had many internet relationships. I got really close to one person in particular. I know that the entire time I've known this person, everyone around me has judged him and our relationship, without even once taking a look in the mirror. No one, the entire time, ever asked why I had looked to this person for someone to talk to. None of them seemed to care how much the two of us loved each other and needed each other. They just ripped us apart. I wonder if maybe this girl was trying to get away from her home. She liked the guy... they were close. Apparently, he didn't hurt her at all. So why won't they leave them alone?
Because it is society's opinion that 31 year old men should not be with 12 year old girls, that no 12 year old, or any person under the legal consent age, could possibly know how they feel or what they need. People seem to think someone's intellegence or emotions or maturity is based on their age. My age has never gotten me further in life. Instead, because I was too young for pretty much everything, I had to lie. I had to lie to get people to take me seriously, and that's really sad!
This girl was probably never taken seriously or listened to or really cared about by her parents. She met someone who did care, and tried to be with them. Why is that a crime? I really don't think it's fair. It's just not. No matter what this guy's choice of porno is, or his religion, or his career, he gave this girl something she needed. I just don't see what's so wrong about it.