Research Roundup: When, Why, What? Looking for Answers About Teen Dating Violence

Photograph of an unhappy teen girl.

Between 10 and 30 percent of teens say that they have been in a violent dating relationship. But beyond the numbers, not a lot is known about when those relationships start or what causes them. And what does “violence” mean? To develop more effective prevention programs, we need to have more refined snapshots of what teen dating violence looks like and how it develops over time.

When the Behaviors Begin

Three new studies attempt to fill those gaps. The first, "Age and Gender Differences in Teen Relationship Violence," addresses the question of “when.” Researchers surveyed 231 young people in middle and high school on the physical and emotional violence in their dating relationships. They also asked the students about their ability to control anger.

The results showed that dating violence was low in seventh grade, but increased sharply in eighth and ninth grade, before leveling off again. At the same time, the seventh graders generally lacked the conflict resolution skills they needed to diffuse violence -- skills that young people tended to have by later grades. The authors highlighted the need to start prevention programming around age 13 and focus on helping middle schoolers manage conflict peacefully.

Where the Violence Comes From

The second study followed a group of 517 ninth-grade girls until the end of 11th grade to try and figure out what made some girls more likely to be in violent relationships than others. The researchers looked at whether child maltreatment or harsh parenting at home might have a role. They also explored the effects of having peers that were violent or delinquent. The vast majority of girls (367) did not wind up in violent relationships. The second largest group (81) were in relationships they characterized as mutually violent. Smaller numbers were exclusively victims or perpetrators -- 39 and 32, respectively. 

The authors found that it was hard to predict who would wind up in a violent relationship. The girls in mutually violent relationships had higher levels of delinquency and were more likely to have experienced parental rejection and sexual harassment. But there was very little that made the girls in the victim-only or perpetrator-only groups stand out. The authors used these finding to stress the importance of educating all young people about how to prevent dating violence.

What the Violence Looks Like

But what exactly should that prevention education be teaching young people to avoid? Dating violence isn't just one thing--it can include a whole host of behaviors that effective prevention may need to address. To figure out what those behaviors might be, researchers on a third study spoke at length to 85 young adults about aggressive relationships they had as teens. The researchers sorted the results based on how frequently violence happened and whether it was mutual or came from one partner.

Based on what they learned in the interviews, the researchers categorized relationships as "turbulent," "maltreating," "brawling," "volatile," "bickering," "deprecating," or "intrusive." In a bickering relationship, for example, both partners are involved in "frequent petulant and peevish arguments" with "some mild impetuous violence or minor impulsive property destruction." A volatile relationship is characterized by one partner exploding in anger that is seen as “coming out of nowhere.” 

The authors suggest that these categories, or typologies, could serve as a starting point for further research and as a useful tool for discussing what teen dating violence looks like in its various manifestations.

Read the Articles

"Age and Gender Differences in Teen Relationship Violence" (abstract). Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, Vol. 21, No. 3.

"Longitudinal Prediction and Concurrent Functioning of Adolescent Girls Demonstrating Various Profiles of Dating Violence and Victimization" (abstract). Prevention Science, Vol. 13, No. 4 (August, 2012).

"Types of Aggressive Relationships in Adolescent Dating Violence" (abstract). Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, Vol. 21, No. 5.

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