Healthy relationships in adolescence can help shape a young person's identity and prepare teens for more positive relationships during adulthood. Providing adolescents with tools to start and maintain healthy relationships (with romantic partners as well as peers, employers, teachers, and parents) may have a positive influence on young people's overall development.
The Role of Healthy Romantic and Dating Relationships
Adolescents tend to become more interested in dating around their mid-teens and become more involved in dating relationships during high school. Although dating does increase during this time, it is also normal for adolescents not to be in a relationship. Nearly two-thirds of teens (ages 13-17) have not been in a dating or romantic relationship. Thirty-five percent of teens (ages 13-17) have some experience with romantic relationships, and 19 percent are currently in a relationship. Older teens (ages 15-17) are more likely than younger teens to have experience with romantic relationships (Lenhart et al., 2015).
Adolescents date less now than they did in the past. This change is most striking for 12th-grade students, where the percentage of youth who did not date increased from 14 percent in 1991 to 38 percent in 2013. Adolescent sexual activity also has decreased from previous decades (Child Trends Databank, 2015). The percentage of U.S. high school students who had ever had sex decreased from 54 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 2017 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018).
Experiencing healthy dating relationships does have benefits to adolescent development. Knowing how to establish and maintain healthy romantic relationships can help adolescents grow. Healthy dating during the teenage years can be an essential way to develop social skills, learn about other people, and grow emotionally. These relationships also can play a role in supporting youth's ability to develop positive relationships in other areas, including: in school, with employers, and with partners during adulthood.
Both male and female youth value intimacy, closeness, and emotional investment in romantic relationships. These relationships can be accompanied by extreme excitement and happiness, but also by disappointment and sadness. However, some youth might go beyond the normal range of emotions and may experience depression.
While meeting partners online has been growing in popularity and is becoming more common among adults, few teens meet their romantic partners online. In 2015, only 8 percent of all teenagers had met a romantic partner online. Of course, many teens have never dated anyone, but among those with dating experience, 24 percent dated or hooked up with someone they first met online. Among this 24 percent, half of the teens had met just one romantic partner online, while the other half had met more than one partner online (Lenhart et al., 2015).
Teen Dating Violence
Healthy relationships consist of trust, honesty, respect, equality, and compromise. Unfortunately, teen dating violence—the type of intimate partner violence that occurs between two young people who are, or who were once in, an intimate relationship—is a serious problem in the United States. Teen dating violence can take place in person or electronically, such as repeated texting or posting sexual pictures of a partner online without consent. Unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime. Teens often think some behaviors, like teasing and name-calling, are a “normal” part of a relationship—but these behaviors can become abusive and develop into serious forms of violence. However, many teens do not report unhealthy behaviors because they are afraid to tell family and friends.
A national survey found that ten percent of teens, 1 in 11 females and 1 in 15 males, had been the victims of physical dating violence within the past year. Approximately 29 percent of adolescents reported being verbally or psychologically abused within the previous year. About 1 in 9 female and 1 in 36 male high school students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year. The burden of teen dating violence is not shared equally across all groups—sexual minority groups are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence, and some racial/ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by many types of violence.
As for perpetration rates, there are currently no nationwide estimates for who does the abusing, and state estimates vary significantly. In South Carolina, for example, nearly 8 percent of adolescents reported being physically violent to a romantic partner. Interestingly, the rates of reported victimization versus perpetration in the state were similar for boys and girls. However, when it comes to severe teen dating violence — including sexual and physical assault — girls were disproportionately the victims
Research on teen dating violence has found that girls and boys perpetrate the same frequency of physical aggression in romantic relationships. This finding was at odds with common perceptions and the experience of practitioners that work with these youth. Practitioners overwhelmingly report encountering female victims and hear that males are the primary perpetrators.
Teen Dating Violence Requires a Different Framework
Because teen dating violence has only recently been recognized as a significant public health problem, the complex nature of this phenomenon is not fully understood. Although research on rates of perpetration and victimization exists, research that examines the problem from a longitudinal perspective and considers the dynamics of teen romantic relationships is lacking. Consequently, those in the field have to rely on an adult framework to examine the problem of teen dating violence.
However, we find that this adult framework does not take into account key differences between adolescent and adult romantic relationships. Thus, to help further the discussion, we offer in this article a gender-based analysis of teen dating violence with a developmental perspective. We look at what we know — and what we do not know — about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim in teen dating violence. We also discuss how adult and adolescent romantic relationships differ in the hope that an examination of existing research will help us better understand the problem and move the field toward the creation of developmentally appropriate prevention programs and effective interventions for teenagers.
Victims and Perpetrators: What the Research Says
In 2001-2005, Peggy Giordano and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University interviewed more than 1,300 seventh, ninth and 11th graders in Toledo, Ohio. More than half of the girls in physically aggressive relationships said both they and their dating partner committed aggressive acts during the relationship. About a third of the girls said they were the sole perpetrators, and 13 percent reported that they were the sole victims. Almost half of the boys in physically aggressive relationships reported mutual aggression, nearly half reported they were the sole victim, and 6 percent reported that they were the sole perpetrator.
These findings are generally consistent with another study that looked at more than 1,200 Long Island, N.Y., high school students who were currently dating. In that 2007 survey, 66 percent of boys and 65 percent of girls who were involved in physically aggressive relationships reported mutual aggression (O’Leary et al., 2008). Twenty-eight percent of the girls said that they were the sole perpetrator; 5 percent said they were the sole victim. These numbers were reversed for the boys: 5 percent said they were the sole perpetrator, 27 percent the sole victim.
In a third study, teen couples were videotaped while performing a problem-solving task. Researchers later reviewed the tapes and identified acts of physical aggression that occurred between the boys and girls during the exercise. They found that 30 percent of all the participating couples demonstrated physical aggression by both partners. In 17 percent of the participating couples, only the girls perpetrated physical aggression, and in 4 percent, only the boys were perpetrators (Capaldi et al., 2007). The findings suggest that boys are less likely to be physically aggressive with a girl when someone else can observe their behavior.
Figure 11.5.1. Statistics on the perpetration of physical teen violence by gender.
Considered together, the findings from these three studies reveal that frequently there is mutual physical aggression by girls and boys in romantic relationships. However, when it comes to motivations
for using violence, and the consequences of being a victim of teen dating violence, the differences between the sexes are pronounced. Although both boys and girls report that anger is the primary motivating factor for using violence, girls also commonly report self-defense as a motivating factor, and boys also commonly cite the need to exert control. Boys are also more likely to react with laughter when their partner is physically aggressive. Girls experiencing teen dating violence are more likely than boys to suffer long-term negative behavioral and health consequences, including suicide attempts, depression, cigarette smoking, and marijuana use.
Applying Adult Perspectives to Teen Dating Violence
Why do teenagers commit violence against each other in romantic relationships? We have already touched on the existing body of research on perpetration and victimization rates. Nevertheless, there is not a great deal of research that uses a longitudinal perspective or that considers the dynamics of teen romantic relationships. As a result, practitioners and researchers in the field tend to apply an adult intimate partner violence framework when examining the problem of teen dating violence.
A split currently exists, however, among experts in the adult intimate partner violence arena. Some experts hold that men and women are mutually combative and that this behavior should be seen as part of a larger pattern of family conflict. Supporters of this view generally cite studies that use "act" scales, which measure the number of times a person perpetrates or experiences certain acts, such as pushing, slapping, or hitting. These studies tend to show that women report perpetrating slightly more physical violence than men. It is interesting to note that most studies on teen dating violence that have been conducted to date have relied primarily on "act" scales.
Another group of experts holds that men generally perpetrate serious intimate partner violence against women. They contend that men in patriarchal societies use violence to exert and maintain power and control over women. These experts also maintain that "act" scales do not accurately reflect the nature of violence in intimate relationships because they do not consider the degree of injury inflicted, coercive and controlling behaviors, the fear induced, or the context in which the acts occurred. Studies using "act" scales, they contend, lack information on power and control and emphasize the more common and relatively minor forms of aggression rather than more severe, relatively rare forms of violence in dating and intimate partner relationships. Instead, supporters of this perspective use data on injuries and in-depth interviews with victims and perpetrators.
We believe, however, that applying either of these adult perspectives to adolescents is problematic. Although both views of adult intimate partner violence can help inform our understanding of teen dating violence, it is important to consider how adolescent romantic relationships differ from adult romantic relationships in several key areas.
How Teen Dating Violence Differs: Equal Power
One difference between adolescent and adult relationships is the absence of elements traditionally associated with greater male power in adult relationships. Adolescent girls are not typically dependent on romantic partners for financial stability, and they are less likely to have children to provide for and protect.
The study of seventh, ninth and 11th graders in Toledo (Giordano, 2007), for example, found that a majority of the boys and girls who were interviewed said they had a relatively "equal say" in their romantic relationships. In cases in which there was a power imbalance, they were more likely to say that the female had more power in the relationship. Overall, the study found that the boys perceived that they had less power in the relationship than the girls did. Interestingly, males involved in relationships in which one or both partners reported physical aggression had a perception of less power than males in relationships without physical aggression. Meanwhile, the girls reported no perceived difference in power regardless of whether their relationships included physical aggression.
It is interesting to note that adults who perpetrate violence against family members often see themselves as powerless in their relationships. This dynamic has yet to be adequately explored among teen dating partners.
Lack of Relationship Experience
A second key factor that distinguishes violence in adult relationships from violence in adolescent relationships is the lack of experience teens have in negotiating romantic relationships. Inexperience in communicating and relating to a romantic partner may lead to the use of poor coping strategies, including verbal and physical aggression. A teen who has difficulty expressing himself or herself may turn to aggressive behaviors (sometimes in play) to show affection, frustration, or jealousy. A recent study in which boys and girls participated in focus groups on dating found that physical aggression sometimes stemmed from an inability to communicate feelings and a lack of constructive ways to deal with frustration.
As adolescents develop into young adults, they become more realistic and less idealistic about romantic relationships. They have a greater capacity for closeness and intimacy. Holding idealistic beliefs about romantic relationships can lead to disillusionment and ineffective coping mechanisms when conflict emerges. It also seems reasonable to expect that physical aggression may be more common when adolescents have not fully developed their capacity for intimacy, including their ability to communicate.
The Influence of Peers
We would be remiss to try to understand teen behavior and not consider the profound influence of friends. Peers exert more influence on each other during their adolescent years than at any other time. Research has confirmed that peer attitudes and behaviors are critical influences on teens' attitudes and behaviors related to dating violence.
Not only are friends more influential in adolescence than in adulthood, but they are also more likely to be "on the scene" and a key element in a couple's social life. In fact, roughly half of adolescent dating violence occurs when a third party is present. Relationship dynamics often play out in a very public way because teens spend a large portion of their time in school and in groups. For various reasons, a boyfriend or girlfriend may act very differently when in the presence of peers, a behavior viewed by adolescents as characteristic of an unhealthy relationship. For example, boys in one focus group study said that if a girl hit them in front of their friends, they would need to hit her back to "save face."
Conflict over how much time is spent with each other versus with friends, jealousies stemming from too much time spent with a friend of the opposite sex, and new romantic possibilities are all part of the social fabric of adolescence. Although "normal" from a developmental perspective, navigating such issues can cause conflict and, for some adolescents, lead to aggressive responses and problematic coping strategies, such as stalking, psychological or verbal abuse, and efforts to gain control.
Risk Factors for Teen Dating Violence Victimization
Findings suggest that the frequency and severity of teen dating violence increase with age. In addition, the likelihood of being subjected to violence in a relationship increases for teens who:
- Experience stressful life events or show symptoms of trauma (including a history of sexual abuse or prior sexual victimization).
- Live in poverty, come from disadvantaged homes, or receive child protective services.
- Are exposed to community or neighborhood violence.
- Participate in risky behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, alcohol use, violence).
- Begin dating at an early age.
- Participate in sexual activity before age 16.
- Have problem behaviors in other areas.
- Have a friend involved in dating violence.
- Participate in peer violence or have violent friends.
- Believe that dating violence is acceptable or is more accepting of rape myths and violence against women.
- Begin menstruating at an early age (for women).
- Have been exposed to harsh parenting, inconsistent discipline, or lack supervision, monitoring, and warmth.
- Have low self-esteem, anger, or depressed mood.
- Use emotional disengagement and confrontational blaming as coping mechanisms.
- Exhibit maladaptive or antisocial behaviors.
- Have aggressive conflict-management styles.
- Have low help-seeking proclivities.
Risk Factors for Teen Dating Violence Perpetration
In addition to the issues discussed above, there are additional factors that are associated with teen dating violence perpetration include:
- Believing that it is acceptable to use threats or violence to get one’s way or to express frustration or anger.
- Problems managing anger or frustration.
- Association with violent peers.
- Low self-esteem and depression.
- Not having parental supervision and support.
- Witnessing violence at home or in the community.
Impacts of Teen Dating Violence
Unhealthy, abusive, or violent relationships can have severe consequences and short-and long-term adverse effects on a developing teen. For example, youth who are victims of teen dating violence are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, engage in unhealthy behaviors, like using tobacco, drugs, and alcohol, exhibit antisocial behaviors, like lying, theft, bullying, or hitting, and think about suicide.
Violence in an adolescent relationship sets the stage for problems in future relationships, including intimate partner violence and sexual violence perpetration and/or victimization throughout life. For example, youth who are victims of dating violence in high school are at higher risk for victimization during college.
In the case of sexual teen dating violence, it can negatively influence the development of healthy sexuality, intimacy, and identity as youth grow into adulthood. These experiences can increase the risk of physical injury, poor academic performance, binge drinking, suicide attempts, unhealthy sexual behaviors, substance abuse, negative body image and self-esteem, and violence in future relationships.
Teen dating violence can be prevented. Prevention is most successful when there is a focus on reducing risk factors as well as fostering protective factors. Teens should also be empowered through family, friends, and others (including role models such as teachers, coaches, mentors, and youth group leaders) to lead healthy lives and establish healthy relationships. It is crucial to create spaces, such as school communities, where the behavioral norms are not tolerant of abuse in dating relationships. The message must be clear that treating people in abusive ways will not be accepted, and policies must enforce this message to keep students safe.
The ultimate goal of education about youth violence is to stop teen dating violence before it begins. During the preteen and teen years, young people are learning the skills they need to form positive, healthy relationships with others. Therefore, it is an ideal time to promote healthy relationships and prevent patterns of teen dating violence that can last into adulthood.
In addition to teaching relationship skills, prevention programs can focus on promoting protective factors—that is, characteristics of a teen’s environment that can support healthy development—and positive youth development. These can also be fostered by a teen’s home and community. For example, higher levels of bonding to parents and enhanced social skills can protect girls against victimization. Similarly, for boys, high levels of parental bonding are associated with less externalizing behavior, which in turn is associated with less teen dating violence victimization.
Most of the handful of programs that have been empirically investigated are school-based and use a group format. Program length varies from less than a day to more than 20 sessions. A few programs frame the issue using a feminist perspective, while others use a more skills-based and gender-neutral approach. Teen dating violence prevention programs tend to focus on attitudes about violence, gender stereotyping, conflict management, and problem-solving skills. Activities aimed at increasing awareness and dispelling myths about violence in relationships are often included in the curriculum.
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