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Why should we be talking about domestic abuse with our young people?

1 October 2020

Domestic abuse is a topic that garnered much attention during the initial national lockdown, as people began to realise that staying at home to stay safe wouldn’t necessarily mean staying safe for domestic abuse victims living with their perpetrators. But should we be talking about this tricky topic with young people at school?

In our experience of taking this subject into schools over the past 6 years, the willingness of school leaders to embrace the topic presents a very mixed picture. We’ve encountered those prepared to fully embrace our arts-based intervention, enabling the group we worked with to share their learning with the rest of the school; those who asked us to avoid any overt reference to domestic abuse and only focus on the positive element of healthy relationships; and those who assumed – in spite of evidence to the contrary – that it wouldn’t be relevant to their more middle class cohort.

There was a prevailing view that domestic abuse is a working-class problem that happens in a cycle of violence within deprived communities. The useful thing about working across schools is that it gives us chance to compare and contrast. 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 fact of opening a space to talk about domestic abuse has resulted in up to 20% of the group disclosing they’ve witnessed it. 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 experiences.

This was the motivation behind a creative resource developed in 2019 – Us Too – a powerful soundscape created by weaving together the testimony of 6 survivors to show the breadth of people affected by domestic abuse, including young people, men, those who are LGBT+, disabled or from a BAME background... and those who are well-educated or professional. In the words of one of our participants:

“Beautiful house; must be a happy home. Everything must be fine, but it’s nonsense.”

There’s a set of assumptions that stand in the way of self- and peer- identification, and by extension, of people accessing the help they need. In the words of another participant:

“Being younger, there was an idea that there was an immaturity to my perspective: that I’m unreasonable; that I just expected a perfect relationship; that I couldn’t handle the reality of an adult relationship, that sometimes you argue. Yeah sometimes you argue, but you shouldn’t be afraid of your partner in an argument.”

It’s worth educators being aware that young people aged 16-24 experience high rates of domestic abuse. It’s also an issue that *may* impact them later in life. The young people we’ve worked with grasp this, telling us:

“We should have more projects like this because it teaches us more about real life.” But should these projects just focus on the ‘positive’ dimension of what a healthy

relationship looks like? An adult Us Too participant told us:

“I didn’t see it coming because I didn’t have any people around me who weren’t lovely people. Because I’d never seen it, I didn’t recognise it, I didn’t expect it when it came.”

Our conclusion is that not only do young people want us to embrace the topic of domestic abuse; they need us to do so. Forewarned is forearmed. Abuse is an experience that affects a person’s capacity to thrive. If we can proactively prevent our young people from forming – or entering into – abusive relationships, we are making sure to give them chance to thrive.

The resource we created (Us Too) blends digital and orchestral music with the recorded testimony of the diverse survivors we interviewed to create a half hour soundscape that can be used in Relationships and Sex Education, either as a stand-alone lesson or as part of a comprehensive scheme of work exploring domestic abuse and healthy relationships. Within this scheme, Us Too is used as a stimulus for group discussion breaking down the stereotypes we hold about who can be affected by – & indeed perpetrate – domestic abuse.

Survivor testimony is analysed to help young people understand how to critique relationship behaviours. It’s important to be aware of signs of controlling behaviour but at the same time, to recognise there can be contrasting motivations, such that sending lots of texts could be about checking up on someone, with controlling overtones. It could also be an expression of care for someone’s wellbeing, so we need to be ready to consider context.

The wider scheme of work includes creative activities that could be undertaken in Art, English or Drama and incorporates philosophical enquiry, alongside a range of interactive methods that seek to prepare young people to make safe and healthy relationship choices.

This scheme of work, with lessons for years 7-11, will soon be available for download on a special Schools Membership area of our website. It will be followed, in 2021, by brand-new creative resources that focus on young people’s experiences of witnessing domestic abuse in the home; particularly pertinent after 6 months of lockdown. The illustrated book, animation & lesson plans are being designed to help teachers navigate discussion with affected young people in need of support.

Lisa Charlotte Davis
Founder of arts education company Changing Relations C.I.C - a partner of the Sex Education Forum.

Book into our digital conference, Countdown to statutory RSE, this coming Monday (5 October) and you’ll be able to attend a seminar with Changing relations on ‘Using creative methods and stimuli to demystify domestic abuse.Drawing on the arts is an effective way to create a safe, open space to explore a tricky topic such as domestic abuse. In this workshop, Changing Relations will introduce the way they use their original creative resources as a concrete, visual reference point for young people to build the foundations needed to make safe and healthy relationship choices.

Short clips of Us Too are available on our You Tube channel: Changing Relations C.I.C.

Register interest in our toolkit, Demystifying Domestic Abuse: Follow our work on FB/Twitter @changerelations or our website: