I Really Like My Teacher, But I Get Anxious Around Her

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Reader’s Question

I was emotionally abused by a scary, violent alcoholic father as a child and even though I am 17, I am still not free from this. I also have three younger sisters and a mom who doesn’t care much so it is always my responsibility to take care of them.

In my 11th grade year in high school I had a really great math teacher. She is a 40-year-old woman who has two daughters my age and is the nicest person I have ever met. Recently I find that I am feeling really attached to her and I have been getting jealous of other students whom she seems to favor over me. I always think about her when my father is drunk and my mom is gone because it makes me feel safe.

Even more recently I feel extremely anxious about being around my teacher and I don’t know why. Why am I getting so anxious around a person who used to make me feel safe? Would telling her about my situation, which I have always kept a secret, make me feel better?

Psychologist’s Reply

It takes a great deal of strength and courage to not only deal with your abusive situation but also take care of three younger siblings. In families in which the parents are either absent or abusive, sometimes one of the older children, usually but not always the eldest, becomes what we call “parentified.” This means that she or he takes on the role of parent to the younger children. It sounds like this is the role you play for your sisters and you are to be commended for it. That must be quite a challenge.

When you are operating under such a heavy burden, it is perfectly normal to find someone who seems like she would be exactly the kind of parent you would like to have and imagine a situation in which that is true. In fact, this kind of imagining can be a healthy coping skill, especially if it makes you feel safe. However, whenever a method of coping starts interfering with your relationship (by making you jealous) or causing anxiety, then it’s veering into unhealthy territory and needs to be changed.

One of the great things about thoughts is that you are in charge of them. You can change them to fit your needs at the moment. Consequently, if the thought of your teacher favoring other students is a problem, you can change the way you think about the situation. For example, you can tell yourself that she is just your teacher and enjoy the student/teacher relationship for what it is. Or you can use her as a role model for how a parent should act and use WWTD (What Would Teacher Do) as a guide for your behavior. Whatever perspective you decide to take, just make certain it’s something that is healthy and works well for you.

It could be that the mere thought of telling someone about your situation is making you anxious. Since your teacher is the person you are considering telling, that anxiety may be focused around her for the moment. Abusive situations are extremely difficult to manage especially for someone as young as you, so secrets like that need to be shared in order for the people involved to receive the help they deserve. While teachers can be of assistance, I tend to lean toward counselors being the better confidants as they have specific training for helping in these types of situations. However, if a counselor is not available, then please do tell someone. If that person is not able to help, please keep telling people until you find someone who can and will be of assistance to you.

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