Dating Violence: A Two Way Street, But Girls Are Hurt Most

Caroline Novas and Elina Mir, National Center for Health Research

Adults may think of teenage relationships as superficial, short-lived, and insignificant. However, a growing field of research suggests that behaviors in teen relationships shape future adult relationships. The 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 1 in 10 adolescents have been hit, pushed, or hurt by a weapon or other object by a dating partner.1 In addition, 23% of females and 14% of males have experienced sexual violence or coercion in their dating relationships before the age of 18.2

Because adolescence is a time of exploration and development, 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. Unfortunately, research shows that 13% of teens who are either victims or perpetrators of intimate partner violence will be involved in more than one abusive relationship in a year.3 Teen dating violence is also associated with negative outcomes in adulthood. A 2013 study found that five years after a violent teen relationship, female victims reported increased adult intimate violence victimization, heavy drinking episodes, suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, smoking, and marijuana use compared to females who hadn’t experienced teen dating violence.4

Teen dating violence can have a devastating impact during the adolescent years. Adolescents who experience dating violence are more likely to be depressed and anxious, contemplate suicide, display anti-social behaviors, and use alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.5  The 2016 report of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the health risks of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) high school students found 23% had experienced sexual dating violence, 18% had been forced to have sex, and 18% had experienced physical dating violence.4 Teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and influences, even when violence is involved. Research has demonstrated that adolescents’ risk of abusive relationships increases for teenagers who engage in sexual activities at an early age believe dating violence is acceptable, and have conflicts with their partner.6

 sad-woman Girls Vs. Boys: Who Is Getting Hurt the Most?

Statistics on who is being hurt as well as who is hurting them vary greatly. Many studies of heterosexual couples have shown that men are normally the perpetrators of dating violence and that women are primarily the victims. This finding has important implications: It suggests that interventions should focus primarily on changing male behavior. However, some studies have found girls reported being the aggressor in dating violence more often than males. For instance, a 2010 study of sixth graders found that 31% of girls reported being the perpetrators of dating violence while only 27% of boys admitted being violent.7 The study defined the 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 73% of perpetrators were females.8

So does this mean that girls are just as violent or perhaps even more violent towards their partners than boys? According to some researchers, females initiate many acts of aggression but usually use less severe forms, such as slapping and pinching, whereas males tend to use more violent strategies, such as punching and sexual assault. It may also be that females feel more comfortable reporting dating violence than males do. In addition, slapping or pinching may seem more socially acceptable to report than the types of assault that are more typical of men.

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.9 In addition, female victims of dating violence are over twice as likely as other U.S. girls to report having been pregnant.10 However, it is not clear if dating violence causes these problems or if adolescents with these problems are more susceptible to dating violence. In addition, researchers found that having a lot of friends who partake in high-risk behaviors was associated with a greater chance of being a victim of teen dating violence later on.11 Many studies have also looked at childhood abuse as a possible risk factor for teen dating violence. For example, a 2009 study found that emotional abuse during childhood was associated with being a perpetrator or victim of teen dating violence for boys and a victim for girls.12 Similarly, a 2006 study found that children who were victims of physical and sexual abuse were more likely to become perpetrators of teen dating violence.13

What this Means for Parents and other Adults

The bad news for parents and other caring adults is that they are unlikely to be told about these incidents of teen 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% told no one at all, and 61% told a friend.14

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 maltreatment, 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 target the young. Preventative measures and education need to be started in early middle school and focus on both genders, not just males.

Here are some ways to talk to your child about teen dating violence:

  • Talk in Private: Make sure to always initiate the conversation in a safe and comfortable place for your child. Choose a private environment, away from siblings and friends.
  • Stay General Initially: Don’t dive straight into your concerns about dating violence. That will cause them to get defensive and close off. Instead, first just ask them how their relationship is going.
  • Ask About Friends’ Relationships: Often it’s easier to talk about other relationships then your own. Listen to the behaviors they describe and their take on them.
  • Slowly Bring Up the Topic: Ask your teen if they’ve seen an abusive relationship, pay attention. Here you can define what abusive behavior is and see how your child sees it
  • Ask Them Their Thoughts: Try and get a sense of their thoughts on why people stay in abusive relationships and why they occur
  • Talk to Them About Your Own Experiences: Let them learn from your past. Share a story about your first relationships and how you’ve learned the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship
  • Use Examples from the Media: Are you watching a movie where one of the characters is in an abusive relationship? Talk to your teen about it and what their thoughts are

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

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