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Research Roundup: Searching for Solutions to Teen Dating Violence

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Photograph of a young woman covering her face with her hands.

How bad is dating violence among U.S. teens? In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 1 in 10 high school students (9.4 percent) reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the previous year.

So it’s clear dating violence is a problem, but what can we do to change that? A recent review of the scientific literature on intimate partner violence sifted through several decades of research to highlight what we know so far. Among the authors’ major points:

  • Intimate partner violence starts at around age 12, and even earlier in some inner cities.
  • Violence peaks when teens are around 16 or 17 years old.
  • Both girls and boys engage in dating violence, and most physical and psychological aggression is mutual.
  • Preventing teen dating violence in the first place may be more effective than getting young people to stop after they’ve started acting violently. But only a handful of effective programs have been developed and studied to date.
  • Intervening when teens are in middle school may be the best way to prevent young people from using or experiencing violence in their adult relationships.
  • Interventions targeted at couples may be the most effective.

Targeting Those Most At-Risk

Given the lack of evidence-based teen dating violence prevention programs, researchers have set out to tailor programs to the teens most at risk for committing or experiencing violence in a romantic relationship.

For example, we know that violence between teen romantic partners happens more frequently among some groups of young people, such as teens in southern states, African American teens (especially girls), and teen moms (especially when their infants are very young). And we know many of the risk factors for dating violence, which include poor communication skills, difficulty regulating emotions, and lack of skills for coping with high stress.

With those factors in mind, the authors of a recent study created and tested a four-session intimate partner violence prevention program aimed at pregnant African American teens. Drawing on elements from programs that have been found to help couples improve their relationships and reduce violence, the researchers designed BALL, or Building a Lasting Love. Thirty-nine young women receiving services from a pregnancy clinic attended four sessions, and 33 waitlisted young women were the control group. The two dozen young women who completed BALL were less likely after the program than before to psychologically abuse their baby’s father. They also experienced less severe violence at the hands of their partners over the course of the program.

Another set of researchers used the Love U2 Communication Smarts curriculum to teach low-income, high-risk youth about healthy relationships in an intensive, two-day course. The approximately 200 youth in the study came from a Louisville, KY, public school program for students living in areas with high poverty, high crime, high teen pregnancy rates and low marriage rates – all of which gives them a higher likelihood than their peers of having unhealthy relationships. Love U2 Communication Smarts includes lessons about healthy and unhealthy relationships, communication and conflict resolution, and problem solving. The goal is to give teens the skills to have healthy relationships and to avoid or end unhealthy ones.

The researchers found that at the end of the program young people had more knowledge about relationships, improved communication and conflict resolution skills, and a more negative view of violence in dating relationships than they did at the start. While the study did not include a control group and did not track violence in the young people’s relationships, the authors say this kind of brief and intensive program shows promise for helping at-risk youth gain relationship skills.

Read the Articles

Prevention of Partner Violence by Focusing on Behaviors of Both Young Males and Females” (Abstract). Prevention Science , Vol. 13, No. 4 (August 2012).

The Efficacy of an Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Program with High-Risk Adolescent Girls: A Preliminary Test” (Abstract). Prevention Science , Vol. 13, No. 4 (August 2012).

Healthy Relationship Education for Dating Violence Prevention Among High-Risk Youth” (Abstract). Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (January 2011).

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