When a Student has a Crush on the Youth Worker
Being an early- or mid-adolescent can be a challenging time for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons can be the new, but confusing feelings of intimacy. This new experience of having someone who listens to them and they feel they can trust can sometimes lead them to believe that they are experiencing 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.
Warning Signs & How to Respond
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 being 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 complexities of the relationship with the student.
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 misunderstand their intrinsic longing to matter and belong and be known as romantic or parental (surrogate) in nature.
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.
In Small Groups
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 are those who have been abused, neglected, rejected, marginalized or struggled with substance abuse. The lack of rational insight and poor emotional management, coupled with supportive and safe listening, opportunity for full-disclosure of problems, plus the often-accompanying savior complex of youth workers, makes the student-youth worker relationship 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 SCHAFFNER is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.