Domestic Abuse – a topic to avoid or embrace?
Domestic Abuse – a topic to avoid or embrace? By Lisa Charlotte Davis
Founder of arts education company Changing Relations C.I.C.
Domestic abuse is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable. In our experience of taking this tricky and sensitive subject into schools over the past 4 years, school leaders will respond in a range of ways. From asking us to avoid any reference to domestic abuse whatsoever and only focus on the positive element of healthy relationships, to fully embracing our intervention and enabling the group we worked with to share their learning with the rest of the school via a series of extended assemblies. It’s a very mixed picture and calls for us to interrogate the reasons why we might – as educators – choose to avoid – or embrace – the subject.
One of the tendencies we’ve observed is the assumption that it’s not relevant to your cohort. If your catchment area means a wealthier, more middle class intake, you might be tempted to question the need to warn your students about the signs and manifestations of domestic abuse. It’s a working class problem, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more suitable in that that other school, that other town, for those other people. Do we really need to discuss it here?
The useful thing about working across schools spanning a range of areas is that it gives us the opportunity to compare and contrast.
The first finding to help us answer the question of relevance concerns disclosure. Whether we’ve worked in an area with a high index of deprivation or an area with a high density of educated professionals, a Catholic or a non-denominational school, the very fact of opening a space to talk about domestic abuse has resulted in up to 20% of young people disclosing that they’ve witnessed it within their homes. Not to mention the teachers – and other professionals we meet via workplace training delivery – who hear about what we’re doing and share their own personal experiences. Domestic abuse does not respect social distinction.
The second finding was gathered in a leading independent school where we trialled a social norms approach to measuring youth attitudes to relationships. If you’re not familiar with social norms, it is a tool that is used to gage actual versus perceived prevalence, i.e. what would young people choose to do themselves, what have they experienced and what do they assume everyone else is doing.
When we asked these youngsters about a range of unhealthy relationship behaviours, ‘never’ was definitively the most popular answer. However, when we additionally asked about their experiences:
- 40% told us that friends / boyfriends / girlfriends had played mind games with them;
- A further 40% had experienced being told what to wear by a friend, girlfriend or boyfriend;
- And 42% had been called names or told they were worthless by a friend, girlfriend or boyfriend.
In terms of what they would themselves do, a rather startling:
- 20% reported playing mind games;
- And 9% reported that they would force sexual activity, although it should be noted that this was a low number of individuals.
This finding is important because it chimes with the 2015 government expansion of the definition of domestic abuse to encompass sexual, financial, emotional and psychological abuse as well as the physical abuse many still refer to as “a domestic.” The behaviour, that some young people had clearly normalised, can be summed up by the concept of coercive control, a key phrase that has been used to describe the underlying power dynamic of domestic abuse.
The majority of young people clearly grasp that actual physical violence is unacceptable, however, the implication is that we have young people from more privileged backgrounds who could be said to be at risk of becoming perpetrators of domestic abuse as a result of a normalisation of the notion of control within an intimate partner relationship.
We do not in any way wish to invert the stereotype and suggest that this is only an issue for the middle classes, moreover, to clarify that it is an issue for everyone.
If we, as educators, are responsible for the social and moral education of our young people, we absolutely have to encourage them to critique the behaviours that indicate a willingness to control others for their own gain.
The other main reason for resistance to overt discussion of domestic abuse revolves around teacher anxiety over triggering a traumatic response from young people who have witnessed it within the place they should feel safest. What was incredibly instructive for us was the response of a young person, who had been the direct victim of horrendous abuse from a parent, who told us it made a huge difference to understand that other people experience abuse and to learn that adults find it just as difficult to speak out and ask for help.
They said that watching our domestic abuse-themed film – Make Do and Mend – helped them identify all of the signs that their parents’ relationship was unhealthy, shaped by controlling behaviour, jealousy, and verbal abuse, how they had watched their dad become socially isolated and withdraw from friends and family.
This vulnerable young person told us that taking part had given them more confidence and improved self-esteem.
Other young people have told us that the opportunity to explore the topic of domestic abuse through discursive and creative activities was “life-changing,” “therapeutic and rewarding” and “allowed me to talk about things I wouldn't normally and to talk more about what I think.”
When asked if we should do anything differently, the feeling was that:
“the whole year group should be made aware.”
“I would have liked this project to last a half/whole school term.”
“we should have more projects like this in the future because it teaches us more about real life.”
Our conclusion is that not only do young people need us to embrace the topic of domestic abuse within school; they want us to do so. They get that it is needed. Abuse is an experience that impacts all elements of a person’s capacity to thrive in life. If we can proactively prevent our young people from forming, or entering into, abusive relationships, we are making sure to give them the opportunity to thrive.
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