Safeguarding Young Love
When it comes to teenagers, the hormones and endorphins are probably palpable in your classroom. Young love is great and it can be heartwarming to watch pupils explore the world of romance, but how do you protect a student if you think they are being abused in their relationship?
There is a common misconception that domestic violence is rooted in long-term, adult relationships. Surely young lovers in the early throes of romance don’t have to worry about emotional or physical abuse? It might come as a surprising statistic that one in three girls aged between 13 and 17 report having experienced some form of sexual violence from partners.
Shocking as this number is, it highlights the need to further educate students on healthy relationships – there’s more to romance than the birds and the bees. Falling in and out of love is normal in high school: some students can be in love with Jack in the morning and Jill in the afternoon – it’s a flurry of emotions! Yet more needs to be done to educate young people on what is healthy in a relationship, and what is not.
Domestic abuse comes in all shapes and sizes, and can happen regardless of the length of a relationship. Abuse is also not just physical, it can simply mean there is one person in a relationship bullying, intimidating or humiliating a partner.
“Sometimes people think of domestic abuse as something that happens between married couples, or people in long-term relationships. The truth is abuse happens to people of all ages, including teenagers and young women,” explains Dr Marsha Scott, CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid. “Domestic abuse is so much more than hitting and physical violence, it is almost always emotional, sexual and financial, too. It’s a pattern of behaviour – not a one-off argument – that leaves the victim-survivor feeling scared, intimidated or controlled.”
Renewed interest in the dialogue surrounding domestic abuse and healthy relationships came after the death of 18-year old Emily Drouet. The law student committed suicide in late 2017 after enduring a crusade of emotional and physical abuse from her boyfriend. Since Emily’s death, her mother Fiona has been campaigning to highlight abuse in young relationships and has made texts between Emily and her boyfriend public.
“Emily’s family experienced something that no family should ever have to go through, and it is testament to her family’s incredible strength and resilience that Fiona is able to campaign and raise awareness as she is. There is a very real chance that Emily’s texts will strike a chord with some people and help them to identify what it is they are experiencing and encourage them to seek the help and support that they need and deserve,” says Marsha.
Duty of Care
“One young person experiencing domestic abuse is one too many; schools have a responsibility to protect and support their students,” explains Marsha. “When it comes to domestic abuse we need a whole school approach, with all staff being trained on gender, the dynamics of domestic abuse and positive interventions.”
Schools have a duty of care to educate young people on sexual health, but healthy relationships are being neglected. Many young pupils go into their first relationship without any concept of what a healthy and happy relationship constitutes, with their only guide being fictional relationships in the media. There needs to be more awareness and education on how to have a healthy relationship, which includes how to spot signs of abuse. Understanding abuse does not need to be a difficult task, but many young people may not realise that their partner telling them not to see friends or family, dictating who they can and cannot communicate with, negatively commenting on their appearance or dictating what they are allowed to wear, and so on, is abuse.
Statistically, young people are more likely to experience emotional abuse than physical abuse. This can affect relationships in the future, an individual’s self-worth and self-esteem and may even lead to tragic circumstances similar to Emily’s.
Educating students about domestic violence, spotting signs of abuse and knowing that there is support available is important. It is likely many young people will not understand or believe that what is happening to them is wrong. They may even be reluctant to ask teachers, friends or family for guidance.
Marsha says: “What we do know is that there are specific barriers that young people face in seeking help and support and that it is so important that we work with young people to support their understandings of relationships, abuse and consent. By creating and facilitating safe space for students to learn about what constitutes a healthy, respectful relationship, teachers and school staff help to make an environment where young people might feel comfortable enough to talk about their own experiences.
This could be subtle indicators like the language they use to talk about their partner, or anxieties about what their partner might think of what they are doing, or it could be a full disclosure; the important thing is that teachers know how to respond appropriately and supportively.”
Listening and supporting students you suspect are being abused is essential to encourage young people to speak out and be confident in the knowledge that what they’re experiencing is abuse and there is help available.
“Most importantly, if someone approaches you about their relationship it’s important to listen and not to judge them. Reassure them that they were right to talk about their feelings or worries and don’t put pressure on them to leave or to change their behaviour. They need to know that they are believed and that they will be supported, and the abuse is not their fault,” concludes Marsha.
It is an upsetting and unfortunate fact that domestic violence happens amongst the youngest in our community. Simple things can help lower the chances of it happening such as an awareness of what constitutes a healthy, intimate relationship and listening to a student’s concerns. The more time given to educating pupils on abuse, the higher the chance that young men and women will know when something doesn’t feel right and be validated in their concerns.
For more information, visit:
Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline www.sdafmh.org.uk/
0800 027 1234
Scottish Women’s Aid www.womensaid.scot