Why Students Choose Toxic Relationships

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • A high school female continues to date abusive males.
  • A college male hangs around friends who get him into trouble.
  • Smart adolescents keep returning to the same old social groups that are going nowhere, that don’t push them to grow or mature.

I think every teacher, coach, youth worker or parent has mourned a young person who consistently makes poor choices about who they hang around, and how those peers prevent them from reaching their potential.

So why is this so common? How can such smart kids do such dumb things?

photo credit: jazbeck via photopin cc

photo credit: jazbeck via photopin cc

When Smart Students Do Dumb Things

Here’s a hint: it has little to do with how smart they are. The truth is, this problem is not so much about their intellect as it is about their emotions. Regardless if they possess a high IQ, a low EQ (what researchers call “emotional intelligence”) can sabotage it every time. This is why those of us who lead them must understand what’s going on.

Brain researchers have told us for years that during adolescence, young people are prone to take more risks than at any other time in their life. The pre-frontal cortex is developing during this period, so the portions of the brain attuned to reward for risks are very high while the portions of the brain that signal consequences for risk are very low. This can lead “smart kids to do some dumb things” at or after school.

In addition, teens who long for those rewards from peers struggle with a paradox. The paradox is so tangible, few of them can explain their own behavior. Let me attempt a simple explanation of my own, based on interactions with high school and college students over the last three decades. Young adults may wrestle with choosing between various peer groups. The fight can be summarized this way:

  1. When I am around healthy, productive people – I like who I am.

Consider what we become when we are around peers who challenge us to be at our best. We feel the exhilarating pull of growth and improvement, whether it’s playing sports, achieving good grades or competing for a spot on the debate team. It may feel hard at the time, but in the process we become a better version of ourselves. I remember hanging around both good athletes as well as smart students in high school and college—and both of them made me stretch and get better. My sense of identity reflected that improvement and I liked myself more than I did earlier.

  1. When I’m around unhealthy, dysfunctional people – I like how I feel.

Unfortunately, this pull forward can be eclipsed by another pull. Students often find that while they like their identity more when around healthy, productive peers, they like how they feel when around static, dysfunctional people. They relax emotionally and intellectually. Further, they feel like they are on top of the heap—and are able to help those languishing peers who need them. Let’s face it: we all like to feel needed; to be a big fish in a small pond. So…many sharp students tend to play the role of “rescuers” and, sadly in the process, get pulled down with peers who are stuck.

Do you remember the story of the crabs in a bucket? Fishermen who have a bucket full of crabs don’t have to worry about any of them climbing out. Do you know why? Because the moment one of them begins to climb to the top, the others pull it back down into the pile. This scenario is all too familiar.

Jared has a genius IQ and is gifted musically as well as academically. Unfortunately, his parents and teachers failed to speak to him about his identity. They felt it was up to him to figure out this for himself. While I understand that the issue of identity is ultimately up to each individual, young people need those in authority to speak into their life and tell them what they see. Our goal should be to invite them into a bigger, more engaging story; into the pursuit of liking who they are, more than how they feel. We must equip them to embrace identity over comfort.

Two Steps We Can Take

  • Talk about their past. Discover and discuss anything you can that might challenge them to live up to a family heritage or name. If their past is stained with poor examples, challenge them to break the cycle.
  • Talk about their future. Talk about how their current decisions will either help or hinder the target they want to hit in their adult life. Remind them that the further out they can see the better the decision they will make today.

Let’s help students love who they are.

Looking to develop leadership skills in students? Check out

Habitudes®: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


Why Students Choose Toxic Relationships