Healthy vs unhealthy: Teaching pupils about relationships

Ben Lovatt

Ben Lovatt is The Training Effect’s lead facilitator for PSHE programmes. He has more than 10 years of experience planning, developing and delivering within frontline services. This has incorporated delivery within the private, public and voluntary sector with both statutory and non-statutory bodies.

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The importance of sex and relationship education (SRE) cannot be underestimated. When we think about the multiple domains where SRE becomes relevant for young people, there is a clear overlap across healthy relationships, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and peer dating violence.

Traditionally, service provision and intervention around such issues has been compartmentalised and addressed in isolation through an information deficit approach to delivery. While this might seem like a logical approach to supporting the emotional development of young people, the reality is that information alone is ineffective. "The process of grooming is used to gain the attachment." Let’s strip this right back to the start and think about things from the perspective of risk. In order to respond to risk, you need to recognise it. Within the context of relationships, this is notoriously difficult. Unfortunately such difficulty is further compounded through an information deficit model of delivery.

Put simply, from a preventative point of view it is easy to give young people the information they need to support them in recognising the facets of an unhealthy relationship. The problem we have is that the components that we recognise are the product of an ongoing process, and unfortunately not the process itself. The process in question is often referred to as grooming.

While it is almost impossible to illustrate a ‘one size fits all’ grooming process to young people, we do know that the factors they identified as unhealthy in a relationship, or the product of a grooming process, are often not present in the early stages of grooming. The reason for this is very simple – the majority of young people would end the relationship!

So, why don’t young people just ‘walk away’ when things get bad?

One of the reasons why young people may present as accepting of abuse within their relationships can be explained very simply; the process of grooming is used to gain the attachment and trust of a potential victim in order to receive the desired benefits further down the line.

If young people were able to identify this process as grooming then life would be easy. Unfortunately for us, the reason the grooming process is so effective is due to it mirroring a more organic process of ‘falling in love’ – differentiating between the two is immensely difficult. During this process duty, dependence and feelings develop. This creates a complex set of circumstances for a young person to navigate.

A simple consent analogy can be applied to demonstrate the challenges that professionals face when educating young people in this domain. Asking a classroom full of young people what consent means to them will give you a variety of different thoughts and opinions, one of the most common being ‘an agreement’. "Changing the context will support you in achieving the best outcomes." In the first instance, this makes sense. An agreement supports the idea of two-way dialogue taking place. But what happens if we change the context from sex to homework? There is often an agreement made between young people and their teacher to complete homework. If we were to ask the same young people if agreeing to complete their homework was something that they wanted to do, then I am confident that their answer would be ‘no’. Let’s think about this for a moment; changing the context once more, but this time from homework back to sex, we have a situation where a young person has agreed and taken part – interestingly not consensually.

We can unpick this even further. The definition of consent accounts for the ‘freedom’ and ‘capacity’ to be able to give full consent. If we look at the factors around ‘freedom’ in the homework context, young people are very aware that their freedom is restricted in the form of a sanction if they fail to do what is asked of them. In the context of sex, agreement based on fear of consequence could be well argued as non-consensual.

It is through analogies such as this that we start to really see the challenges that young people face and the enormity of the task in supporting them to build skills and resources to self-manage and navigate their own risk.

Below are my top three tips which can be applied to support the delivery of SRE to young people:

1. Context is everything

Particularly when delivering group intervention, the young people present are not always working from the same place. The level of knowledge and experience in relation to sex and relationships will vary enormously. Changing the context will support you in achieving best outcomes for both yourself and most importantly, the young people. Remember, sex and relationships are an emotive topic and through creative planning, metaphors and analogies we can deliver an impactful and effective intervention in a depersonalised way.

2. Focus on the process not the problem     

Sex and relationships are not as simple as ‘black or white’ – my experience has taught me that we spend most of our time working in the ‘grey’ area with young adults. Focusing on the consequence or risk in relation to behaviour is not the most helpful way of approaching things. As we identified earlier, there is a process that shapes the outcome and it is the factors and variables within the process where we can offer most support to young people. Building on the resources and supporting the acquisition of skills to self-manage risk at all stages is both empowering and effective.

3. Young people probably already have the answer

Young people that have experienced unhealthy relationships will know the risk better than anyone – they’ve lived it. Remember, if they are sat in front of you, then they are surviving. Asking them how they are managing to do that is a great place to begin!

Do you teach SRE? Share your experiences below.

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