The Issue - The tears and tiffs of teenage relationships

Falling in - and out - of love can be a tumultuous experience for young people and it is teachers' duty to safeguard their well-being

Belinda Ludlum

Teenagers kissing in the corner of the classroom at breaktime, a boy snickering with his friends as he reads out text messages from his girlfriend, students crying in toilets after the "love of their life" dumps them for their best friend. It is fair to say that teenage relationships, and the fallout from them, are an ever-present issue for teachers.

Acting as an agony aunt or uncle to these hormonal horrors can often seem like a job too far, but it is important that we make the time to do so. The fragility of a young person's self-esteem during the turmoil of adolescence means that, if unsupported, they can carry painful embarrassment into later life, while events that teachers view as trivial can grow to have serious consequences.

One teacher recalls an incident that occurred between a long-term couple on a school ski trip. After the boy was caught flirting with another girl, the couple fought, broke up in a storm of accusation and their fellow students duly aligned themselves to the person they perceived to be the wronged party. This all went unnoticed by the teachers, who realised what had happened only when they found themselves with a damaging split in the year group that began to affect not just classroom harmony but attainment levels, too.

Another example is Hannah, now 25, who talks of her GCSE music lessons being abandoned when her boyfriend rejected her in favour of another girl in the class. She had been predicted an A, but she missed so many lessons trying to avoid the new couple that eventually her chances of achieving an exam grade above a C disappeared.

In both these situations, early intervention by a teacher could have lessened the impact of the incidents and prevented a "trivial" (in the eyes of the teacher, at least) event from becoming much more serious.

Of course, these fledgling relationships can quickly lead to very adult problems. One teacher remembers a 14-year-old girl arriving in class drunk. She told one of her friends that she had consumed a huge amount of vodka - it then emerged that she was pregnant. The events that followed are a testament to what can happen when teachers take their pastoral role seriously. Social services kicked into action and the student received counselling, while the school put measures in place to look after her. Her classmates were generally understanding, thanks to some teacher input, and she continued with the pregnancy. The support helped her through the situation: she is still in a relationship with the father of her child and has just started university.

The digital age has only increased the potential problems: Facebook and Twitter are implicated in a great many relationship difficulties in school. Although the trigger for most issues connected with these websites occurs at home, not in school, young people can feel unable to face their friends in class as a result, especially when oversharing is involved.

The headteacher of my school led a great assembly to help tackle these issues. He asked for a volunteer to come forward and create a picture of themselves using tomato ketchup and a large piece of paper. Five minutes later they were praised and the picture was shown to the audience. The student was then asked to put the ketchup back in the bottle. After nervous laughter from the whole room, the point hit home that it is virtually impossible to erase a digital footprint once it is created.

But what else can teachers do to help students? The best pastoral staff in schools are often teachers who have reared their own teenagers and seen it all, dealt with it all and emerged to tell the tale. There is no room in the job for someone who has a low shock threshold or who is unable to think clearly and calmly in a crisis.

Safeguarding always puts students' well-being at the centre of an issue, and pastoral staff hold this at the forefront of their minds when dealing with relationship disasters and their effects on a class or an entire year group. Every child should feel that they are genuinely cared for and can talk to staff about any and all concerns.

Top tips

  • Make it easy for students and parents to find and talk to you - always respond to calls, emails and letters.
  • Ensure that the teachers offering advice are suitable - beware the career- obsessed middle leader whose emotional intelligence is not yet developed. I have had uncomfortable conversations with my 16-year-old and her tutor in which I was unsure who was being more bratty and irrational.
  • Cultivate a culture of caring within the school. We've all been teenagers, even if it was a long time ago.
  • Listen to students and take them seriously, but take action only when really necessary.
  • Do whatever it takes to make children feel safe and happy in school. After all, they have to spend a large part of their teenage years there.
    • Teenagers are often unaware of the hormonal surges that can affect their behaviour so drastically, which is why we must show care and sensitivity. It can be difficult for young people to think clearly during a time when they are beginning to negotiate relationships and are aiming for qualifications that may determine their futures. So, as teachers and school leaders, we must do all we can to ensure their safe passage through these stormy waters.

      Belinda Ludlum is director of sixth-form learning at Oaklands Catholic School and Sixth Form College in Hampshire, England.

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Belinda Ludlum

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