Because of the difficulties students have in early and mid-adolescence to manage strong feelings of intimacy, the new experience of having someone who listens and whom they can trust sometimes lead them to believe that they are in love with their youth worker.
Sadly, many at-risk students are so accustomed to negative feelings (shame, fear, guilt, anger) that positive feelings (joy, trust, contentment, playfulness) are unfamiliar to them. Such students may not understand their own feelings, and they may not have the skills to differentiate them. In some cases, if a student has been abused (physically or sexually) and/or is abusing drugs or alcohol, romantic obsession or sexual fantasies can be a substitute for reducing anxiety or stress. Powerful romantic feelings may be directed toward the youth worker, threatening the health of the relationship.
The youth worker may first become aware a student is having strong feelings by subtle changes in their demeanor or by more obvious signs, such as requests to meet the worker in non-ministry related settings. The youth worker must, above all, avoid transgressing the boundaries of the relationship and continue to emphasize the context of the relationship of one spiritual in nature. He/She should not consent to personal requests, even if they seem innocent. Second, even if he/she only suspects a student of harboring sexual feelings for him/her, he/she should immediately bring the matter to the attention of a colleague or other staff person. This consultation will serve not only to protect himself/herself, should legal complications arise later, but can also help him/her work through the difficulty in the relationship itself.
If the youth worker senses that a student is developing romantic feelings for him/her, he/she can try to discuss the matter openly by asking questions, such as “I sense that you are feeling very strongly about something today. Is there something in particular you want to talk about?” If the student eventually discloses romantic or sexual feelings, the youth worker must maintain a spiritual focus and uphold the boundaries of the student-youth worker relationship. Students should be encouraged to examine the feelings rather than act on them. The tension of this interaction can lead to a “teachable moment” in which the student learns to better differentiate his/her feelings. The youth worker should remind the student repeatedly of the purpose of their meetings, emphasizing what the youth worker and the student will and will not do as part of their relationship. Students often use attraction to the youth worker to avoid dealing with unresolved feelings or emptiness.
Another, less confrontational way to deal with this type of situation is to maintain the boundaries of the student-youth worker relationship but to use the students’ feelings to help them discover solid but non-sexual relationships with peers who will listen. The student can be assisted to differentiate feeling good from feeling sexual desire. The youth worker can explain that the “attractive” aspects of their relationship, such as trust and feeling safe, are qualities that students will want to look for in their personal relationships.
Similar problems of inappropriate attachments and boundary issues can occur in small group settings as well, and youth workers (whether group leaders or one-on-one mentoring) must be prepared to work with the students on this dynamic. Here, too, defining roles and expectations from the outset that address interactions between group members and between group leader and members. Students should avoid letting any of these relationships become too personal and should be made to understand why, in this setting, developing sexual relationships would be detrimental to the group as a whole. Youth workers, in turn, must understand and support the bonding that occurs when students share their innermost thoughts in a safe and sympathetic environment – and the confusion group members may have about their feelings of dependence on or the responsibility for other group members.
Students most at risk for these behaviors have likely been abuse, neglected, rejected, marginalized, and abuse substance. The lack of rational insight and poor emotional management, coupled with supportive and safe listening, opportunity for full-disclosure of problems make the student-youth worker a fertile ground for unhealthy and even dangerous interactions to occur. Our youth ministry and many other youth ministries have safety plans and policies to address these and other issues. If yours doesn’t have one in place I would strongly encourage you to do so and train your volunteers as soon as possible to prevent any confusion on how to handle and prevent such situations from occurring.
- Chris / @conversefringe