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Spotting Toxic Relationships

What is a healthy relationship?

by Claire Law

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To consider how to identify a potentially unhelpful relationship.

Preparation and materials


  1. Have Slide 1 showing as the students enter the room.

    Welcome the students to the assembly.

  2. Show Slide 2.

    Ask the students whether any of them know what this symbol means.

    Listen to a range of responses.

    The symbol is used to indicate that something is toxic.

  3. Ask the students, ‘What does the word “toxic” mean?’

    Explain that, in formal terms, ‘toxic’ is a synonym for ‘poisonous’, but used informally, its meaning extends to something very unpleasant or unacceptable.

  4. Show Slide 3.

    Explain that if we’ve ever become unwell after eating contaminated food, we’ll know the impact that toxins can have on our bodies. Whether the toxin in question is salmonella, listeria or another type of bacteria that causes food poisoning, the toxic effect soon takes its toll, even though the meal may have looked delicious at the time. We become unwell because what we ate was toxic.

    Have you ever heard the phrase ‘toxic relationship’? Like contaminated food, toxic relationships are not always easy to spot and they are really bad for us. Toxic relationships are unhealthy relationships that leave us feeling unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned or attacked.
  5. Let’s look at some warning signs that a relationship - whether it is between friends, between family or romantically - may be less than healthy.

    - A lack of balance. Any healthy relationship involves give and take. Over time, a balance is struck and there is a sense of shared commitment. We help each other out and we take turns. If we notice that the relationship seems one-sided or unequal, we should consider whether things used to be different. Is it a temporary blip, or have we always felt that we give and they take? If we feel that there is no balance, the relationship may not be as healthy as we’d like.
    - Doubting ourselves. A healthy relationship helps us to shine, bringing out the very best in us. It also provides a safe framework where we can sometimes get things wrong and mess up. In a healthy relationship, we are accepted by the other person and there is a shared belief that we are good enough. If we find ourselves in a relationship where we are beginning to doubt ourselves, we should assess whether the relationship is healthy. Sometimes, one person doubts themself after the other regularly says things like, ‘I never said that’, ‘You’re imagining it’ or ‘Stop being so insecure’.
    - Feeling at risk of harm. If we feel that we are being hurt physically or emotionally, or being abused in any way, the relationship is toxic. In this case, it is vital to seek support and speak to a trusted adult. Any kind of abuse is always wrong, and it is the fault of the person hurting us, not our fault. If there is no abuse currently, but we are worried that it may happen in the future, we must also seek help. 
    - Boundary violations. A healthy relationship includes boundaries that communicate our values and guidelines for living. Boundaries show the limits of what we are willing to do, say or give. They can apply to many things, including finances, physical contact, time and conduct. If we find that someone is not respecting our boundaries, it can be a sign of a toxic relationship. For example, we may have laid down boundaries concerning where we do and do not want to be touched. If the other person is pushing us to change our boundaries, this could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

Time for reflection

If any of these warning signs apply to any of our relationships, it’s important to speak to someone about it. That could be a form tutor, the head of year or (insert the name of another pastoral support role at the school)

Show Slide 4.

We can also seek support and advice from Childline, which is a free, private and confidential service where anyone under the age of 19 in the UK can talk about any issue that they’re going through.

We may think that toxic relationships are a new thing, but although the phrase might be relatively new, the idea of unhealthy relationships is not. In fact, it might surprise us to find that Jesus had something to say about toxic relationships.

In the Bible, Jesus often criticizes the way in which the Pharisees treat the poor and anyone else who doesn’t live up to their extremely high expectations. Jesus felt that the Pharisees were judgmental and hypocritical, and that they made life more difficult for people.

In a verse from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 23.33), Jesus compares the Pharisees with poisonous snakes, calling them a ‘brood of vipers’. These are strong words.

There are plenty of other examples in the Gospels where Jesus confronts people about their abusive attitudes towards others. It is clear that Jesus encourages caring relationships between people. In fact, one of Jesus’ most famous sayings is, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6.31). This is a hallmark of a respectful and equal relationship.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on what we have covered today.

It can be difficult to think about toxic relationships, especially if we have experienced one or are worried about someone who may be in one. However, it is important that we speak about these things.

When we are considering the signs of an unhealthy relationship, we may find it easier to reflect upon what a healthy relationship looks like.

So, let’s take a moment to consider our own life and relationships. Is there anything that worries us? If so, what is the next step that we can take? Remember that there is plenty of support out there, both in school and outside.

Pause to allow time for thought.

Let’s also consider what we can do in our healthy relationships to help them remain strong.

Pause to allow time for thought.

Dear God,
It can be hard to think and talk about toxic relationships.
Thank you for the time and space that we’ve had today to consider what makes a healthy relationship,
And what some warning signs of unhealthy relationships might be.
Please help us to recognize and work towards healthy relationships.
Please help us to reach out for support when we need it.
Help us always to remember that abuse is wrong and never the fault of the person being abused.
We pray to find ways to treat others as we would like to be treated.

Publication date: May 2022   (Vol.24 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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