By Caroline Novas
Some people believe teenage relationships are superficial, short-lived, and insignificant. But a growing field of research suggests that what happens in teen relationships shapes future adult relationships. Unfortunately, teen relationships can be violent; one study shows that 16-24 year olds are most likely to be the victims of dating violence.
Because adolescence is a time of exploration and development, the teen years are an important window for learning about healthy dating and relationships. The reality is that many teens are learning to abuse and be abused by their dates: between 20-46% of youths have been abused by their relationship partner. Unfortunately, adolescents often remain in violent relationships; one researcher found that 44% of youths remained in relationships after experiencing moderate violence, which is defined as scratches, slaps, and hair pulls. Even more troublesome, 36% of youths remain in relationships after experiencing severe violence, which includes chokes, punches, or weapon threatening.
Teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and influence-even when violence is involved. Research has demonstrated that adolescents with friends involved in drug use, delinquency, stealing, and skipping school are more likely to be physically violent with their romantic partners than other adolescents.
Girls vs. Boys: who is getting hurt the most?
Statistics on who is hurting whom vary widely. Common sense, and many past studies have shown that men are normally the perpetrators of dating violence and that women are primarily the victims. This finding has important implications, namely that interventions should focus primarily on changing male behavior. However, more recent studies have found girls committing dating violence at higher rates than males. In a 2010 study of sixth graders, for instance, 31% of girls reported being the perpetrators of dating violence while only 27% of boys admitted being violent. The study defined perpetration of physical dating violence the same or in similar ways as studies looking at the adult population: scratching, slapping, kicking, shoving, punching, hitting, or throwing things. Another study claimed that 52% of perpetrators were females.
So are girls just as violent or perhaps even more violent towards their partners as boys? According to some researchers, females initiate many acts of aggression but they are usually the less severe forms (such as slapping and pinching) whereas males tend to use more harmful types of violence, such as punching and sexual assault). It may also be that females report dating violence with greater accuracy, because as victims they can expect sympathy whereas a battered man may experience scorn. In addition, women’s less severe forms of aggression are also more socially acceptable.
Besides possible differences in reporting dating violence, young men and women respond to the harmful effects of dating violence in different ways. While males tend to “act out,” becoming more hostile and aggressive, women tend to withdraw and become anxious, depressed, or show compulsive tendencies.
Regardless of gender, dating violence can lead to many problems that extend far beyond the immediate physical abuse. Victims often have low self-esteem, depression, learning difficulties, suicidal thoughts, and unhealthy weight control behaviors. They are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as binge drinking, physical fights, earlier sexual activity, smoking, and drug use. A 2010 study showed that adolescent female victims are at risk for a greater number of sexual partners, lower levels of condom use, and using drugs before sex. All of these activities increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV. In addition, female victims of dating violence are over twice as likely as other US girls to report having been pregnant. However, it is not clear if dating violence causes all of these problems or if adolescents with these problems are more susceptible to dating violence.
What this Means for Parents
The bad news for parents and other adults is that they are unlikely to be told about these incidents of dating violence, making it difficult to deal with the problem. A 2000 study found that less than 3% of boys or girls reported the incident to an authority figure, such as a teacher, police, or counselor, and only 6% reported it to a family member. More than 30%t told no one at all, and 61% told a friend.
Nevertheless, adults and community members can help stop the problem. Positive behavior by community members has been shown to reduce the likelihood of dating violence. In contrast, a negative home environment and community factors such as child mistreatment or abuse, low levels of parental supervision, and exposure to family violence are all risk factors for dating violence.
In order to decrease the incidence of youth dating violence, adolescents must learn what a healthy relationship is and learn that they have the power to identify and stop abusive and controlling behavior. The link between adolescent and adult dating violence suggests that if we want to decrease domestic abuse and battery, interventions need to be targeted to the young. Since dating violence may already be an issue in sixth grade, preventative measures and education need to be started in early middle school and focus on both genders, not just males.
Miller, S., Gorman-Smith, D., Sullivan, T., Orpinas, P., & Simon, T. R. (2009). Parent and peer predictors of physical dating violence perpetration in early adolescence: Tests of moderation and gender differences. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 38(4), 538-550.
Jain, S., Buka, S. L., Subramanian, S. V., & Molnar, B. E. (2010). Neighborhood predictors of dating violence victimization and perpetration in young adulthood: A multilevel study. American Journal of Public Health, 100(9), 1737-1744.