You have the opportunity ahead of you to make life long friendships and to make lasting impressions on students. We want to do everything we can to ensure that this will be both a positive experience for you and the students that you will be working with this year.
One of the ways we are going to do that is by addressing some issues that we see as a growing problem among people working with teenagers. We want to make sure that expectations are clear and boundaries are drawn. This will allow for the most positive experience and create a safe environment for our students.
The issue that we will address here is simply what to do if you find yourself developing an attraction towards someone under your leadership. This can affect anyone from middle aged women attracted to a high school boy that listens to her and makes her laugh to a college aged boy impressed by the “idol worship” shown to him by the high school girls in their group or class . People are not usually prepared for these unexpected reactions and feelings. We want to prepare you ahead of time and make sure you know the plan of action if you find yourself in this situation.
Why Do People Develop These Feelings?
Right now you might not even be able to conceive having feelings for any student. You believe your heart is in the right place and you are here to help. But, what you might not realize is that you will be dealing with some very intense situations- from cutting, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide and break-ups. All of these combined with hormones can lead to a huge vulnerability in a student’s life. If it happens at a time when you are struggling then it might be the thing that propels you to believe that you are attracted to each other.
You might let your guard down and can feel empowered by the feeling of being needed. This usually doesn’t happen overnight but more slowly overtime. If you are not careful with the conversations you have and how open you are with students then you will quickly find yourself sharing too intimate of details of your lives that can create a “false intimacy” that seems real.
What Are Some Of The Danger Signs?
We don’t want to create an environment of paranoia where you are afraid to be close to the students. However, we also do not want to allow an environment to develop that alienates students because of inappropriate feelings from a leader. We want to lay out some of the “danger signs” that will help you determine if what you are feeling is healthy or inappropriate.
Danger Sign #1 You want to be alone with this student. You look for ways for you to be with them and have “one on one” time. Whether this is learning when they show up for the program or you “always” stay late to talk with this particular student. You might go out of your way to find the student and strike up conversation with them. There might even be times when you hope that they will approach you for private conversation.
This danger sign can also be identified if you find yourself annoyed that other people want to be around. You know that your time is limited and you want to continue being the center of attention. Having others around will only take away from the short amount of time you have with them. You might even find yourself feeling jealous or envious of other leaders and students being shown attention from this student.
Danger Sign #2 You dwell on conversations that you’ve had with this student and plan the conversations you will have in the future. This person might be often quoted in your conversations- for example “such and such said the funniest thing” and you find ways to talk about them on a regular basis.
This is a danger sign because what can happen is that your mind wanders into wondering whether the person is thinking about you as well. You are sure they do and you can create a “fantasy world” where you two can be together more often. This starts to chip away at the boundaries you are expected to live by and you begin justifying your feelings at first. Soon though this can give way to the thought that you don’t have to justify your feelings- they are just right.
Danger Sign #3 You are meeting with this student in secret outside of planned meetings or have secret conversations with them. These secret conversations could be by text, IM or phone. You talk to them in a way that would not let on you were talking with a student. You convince yourself that this person is really “mature” for their age and can carry on serious conversations.
This becomes even more dangerous when you and/ or the student have secret phones or accounts that are hidden from others. Some adults in this situation have gone so far as to buy the student a phone to contact them on so other adults couldn’t track it. It is easy to create false identities on social networks and to carry on private conversations. These conversations usually happen after others have gone to bed and you have an official set time to meet up on-line.
Danger Sign #4 You find yourself fantasizing about the student- this could be sexually or emotionally. If the attraction is physcial then you start noticing physical features and can feel turned on seeing them. You start concerning yourself with how you look when you are going to be around them and want them to find you attractive as well.
But, if the attraction is at a more emotional level then you are looking for ways for the student to be vulnerable. You also want to be open and feel that you can share private thoughts and ideas. You thrive on hearing the person say that you look beautiful or “hot” and enjoy the flirting that you give to and receive from the student.
Expectations If You Recognize The “Danger Signs”
Expectation #1 Tell us. We will not judge you for it. We will come up with an action plan that could involve you taking a break from leading for a while- depending on the severity of the feelings. At the very least we will not allow you to be this student’s leader. By keeping this a secret you are opening the door to allowing these feelings to develop deeper. The relationship will become more serious and can lead to dire consequences that can include jail time.
By telling us when you first recognize these signs we can help you. It might be embarrassing to admit that you have developed these feelings but we can assure you that telling us is the proper response. It is the first step in recognizing the inappropriateness of the feelings and allows us to continue providing a safe and nurturing environment for the students in our care.
Expectation #2 Accountability. The action plan that we develop will be followed with a strict agreement. The agreement will demand for absolute honesty and accountabilty. What we mean by accountability is that we will ask direct questions of you and your relationship with the student. If we discover that you have held something back or have not been completely honest then that will lead to an immediate termination of your leadership in working with students.
Expectation #3 Counseling. We have a list of counselors that we will recommend you visit. You may also have the option of meeting with a pastor. But, getting counseling is a crucial step in understanding the need you have that you are allowing to be met by the students. If you can address this in a professional counseling session and get help then you have a better chance of developing healthy and appropriate relationships with students.
As we said in the beginning- we do not want to scare anyone by creating an environment of paranoia. However, we also want to be realistic and understand that this can happen- and has happened other places. We pray that we will never have to address this issue. But we have the plan in place if we ever do need it.