PSHE: Feeling good – saying no!

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Rounding off her series on abuse in teen relationships, Karen Sullivan looks at what we can do to empower students to spot the warning signs and to have the confidence to say ‘no’

In my articles this term, we have looked at the escalating violence and abuse that is taking place within adolescent relationships, and the growing number of victims – both boys and girls, including those in same-sex relationships.

We have talked about how to ensure that students understand what is normal within a relationship, and where the boundaries lie.

Establishing healthy relationships is key not just to wellbeing at a key period of cognitive and emotional development, but also to the future of our society.

As the boundaries of normalcy become more elastic, and we become increasingly immune to violence, domestic abuse in its many forms is in danger of becoming a common feature of modern relationships.

The most important way to halt the trajectory of this insidious problem is to instil a sense of self-worth in our students; to encourage self-belief, self-respect and confidence, and to give them the courage to say no to any relationship that has the potential to be – or is – harmful.

This in itself is a tricky feat, as adolescents struggle to lay the cornerstones of their identity during puberty and shortly after, and also have an innate need for reassurance and peer acceptance.

There are numerous, well-documented ways to encourage self-esteem and a sense of optimism, including providing opportunities for success and encouraging kids to take on responsible roles in the school community; other ways involve teaching decision-making, which empowers students and provides them with critical tools for dealing with tricky situations.

I have listed a handy decision-making exercise in the resources section and you can also offer students regular opportunities to make decisions, whether it is something as simple as choosing between topics for projects, or becoming involved in classroom management, resource allocation, student forums, scheduling, etc. On a smaller scale, ask students to come up with solutions to their own problems when they crop up: i.e. what are the three best ways to handle this?

Something as simple as creating a “random act of kindness” culture can improve feelings of self-worth across the student population, and engender collective respect. Ask for one act a day and see what happens.

Use PSHE to explore issues surrounding relationship abuse, and to support a spirit of positivity and mutual support. In the former case, create some scenarios: Paul is in a relationship with Amy, and she regularly hits him, and embarrasses him in front of his friends. Some of his friends laugh. She is abusive in private, and he’s becoming isolated from his friends.

What should Paul do? How can he get out of this situation, this relationship? Open it to the floor and see what your students come up with. It’s a lot easier to brainstorm ideas in a group – thus providing inspiration for those who may genuinely need it.

This also creates a culture of understanding – recognising that this could be a problem, demystifying it, and asking students to think through solutions. Ask them how to escape an unhealthy relationship. By putting solutions within their grasp, solutions that have credibility because they are student-driven, students will be much more likely to feel that they are acceptable, and to use them.

Create a team mentality in your classroom, a sort of “we are stronger as one” ideal, where students look out for one another, and don’t hesitate to speak up and to defend. Once again, while it is difficult to stand up alone, when there is a group ethos and determination to provide support to class mates (and ideally school mates), offenders are less likely to risk perpetrating behaviours that could attract negative attention.

Begin every class with an exercise to raise self-esteem on an individual basis. This may sound a little touchy-feely, but it does work. Form small groups and ask students to say something positive to the person next to him or her: I respect you because, or I admire you because...

Many adolescents suffer from chronic self-doubt and a poor self-image, and receiving praise or acknowledgement from their peers can help them to overcome this. I recently saw this approach in action in a family therapy session. The participants were genuinely touched, surprised and moved when others shared positive thoughts.

Ultimately, creating a school environment where students understand the dangers of abuse, both now and in the future, can go a long way towards eradicating the issues. This would include regular discussions about the topic, options for reporting concerns, peer-mentoring schemes and information readily available to encourage students to understand where the problems lie, how to create and maintain healthy relationships and to escape them with dignity when they veer into unhealthy territory.

In fact, Papadopoulos (2010) suggests that “schools have a vital role to play, together with parents, in helping young people to develop healthy relationships, manage their emotions and challenge the behaviour of some young men towards women and girls” (I would add that this is equally relevant for young men, who can also be at risk of abuse).

You may find it useful to take part in a local or national campaign against violence and also to involve parents, explaining that abuse is a problem that you are aiming to tackle, and encouraging them, like the student population, to be alert for signs that it may be occurring (see resources).

Relationships are private, and in many ways, so are adolescents, who prefer to keep things secret rather than risk exposing themselves or presenting themselves as being “different”, and this makes it even more difficult to identify victims.

However, if we work together, educate our students, empower them to feel good about themselves, provide them with options, with awareness and self-awareness, and dignified ways of dealing with problems as they crop up, we are in with a chance of eradicating this blight.



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