Coercive control, gaslighting and love bombing – pupils urged to identify toxic relationships during lockdown

January 19, 2021

By Louise McEvoy

Lockdown provides the perfect opportunity for young people to re-evaluate their relationships and take potentially life-changing steps to cut toxic ties with people.

This is according to Stevenage mum Marilyn Hawes, the founder of Freedom of Abuse, who is dedicated to protecting children from abuse in all its forms, through outreach work which includes visiting schools to give talks.

Marilyn is encouraging teenagers to use the space and distance from their friends, girlfriends or boyfriends during lockdown to think carefully about whether those relationships are healthy or not.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Marilyn trialled a course at two Stevenage secondary schools – Nobel and Marriotts – called Beauty or the Beast, which compared toxic relationships with healthy ones.

She said: “There is so much emphasis in schools about healthy relationships, but young people need to understand a toxic relationship so they can make an informed decision. They don’t understand coercive control, gaslighting or love bombing, for instance.”

Coercive control is an act – or a pattern of acts – of assault, threats, humiliation or intimidation that is used to harm, punish or frighten. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. Love bombing is the practice of showering a person with excessive affection and attention in order to gain control or significantly influence their behaviour.

Marilyn said: “It need not be a romantic relationship – some friendships can be toxic. It’s not about gender or sexuality.
“Our evaluations showed young people felt their PSHE – personal, social, health and economic – education was too focused on healthy relationships. If a youngster is living in a domestic abuse situation, the toxicity becomes normal and is the most repeated abuse later in life. Contrary to this, if a child lives in a happy, balanced home environment, how can they compare a toxic one?

“Following the course, we received many disclosures of teens experiencing issues, and also those who were alerted and made aware of peers they could support.

“We also explain that anyone who is a domestic abuser needs help. Fundamentally, there are deep-seated issues, many of which will go back to their own childhood trauma.”

Steve Morley, assistant headteacher and head of safeguarding at Nobel, said a number of parents, as well as students, made disclosures about domestic abuse as a result of Marilyn’s course.

Lesley Tether, assistant headteacher and head of safeguarding at Marriotts, added: “We have worked closely with Marilyn to educate our students regarding important safeguarding issues. With Years 10 to 13, Marilyn has covered controlling relationships, dating violence and, importantly, the red flags to be aware of. We had a number of disclosures following these talks, and the course has helped open the discussion to an otherwise taboo subject. Marilyn also has extensive knowledge on grooming, the dark web and criminal exploitation. In the current climate these talks are essential to any school.”

Marilyn said: “What is concerning is young people’s lack of knowledge regarding coercive control. It is easy to confuse possessiveness and jealousy with caring and being protective. During lockdown is a great opportunity – giving personal space – to review who is in your life and whether they should be.

“Are you with someone who makes you feel you are wrong? Someone who easily sulks and keeps it up for days? Someone possessive and jealous?

“Leaving it in the hope things will settle down gives a message you are OK with it, and in reality things will just become worse, so you feel trapped. Discuss it with the person and watch their reaction. If they refuse to hear what you are saying then just walk away – amputate them from your life rather than let them drag you down.”