For many teens the ritual of teen romance is a harmless and important part of growing up. However, for teens who are involved in relationships with psychological or physical violence these relationships could be the start of something more sinister.
A new study, led by University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work researcher Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, suggests that teens who experience physical or psychological violence in their adolescent dating relationships have a significantly greater risk of suffering abuse in their future adult romantic relationships. The study, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, isolated dating violence as a strong predictor even when victimized individuals were compared to others with similar backgrounds who did not experience dating violence.
Study is first to show teen dating violence is uniquely implicated in cycle of violence
Domestic violence takes a huge toll on the health and well-being of victims and families. Studies have shown that intimate partner violence against women has an estimated societal cost of $5.8 billion. In this light, Exner-Cortens says her study is a wake-up call that adolescent dating violence needs to be taken more seriously.
“For a long time adolescent romantic relationships weren’t a focus in research because people thought that they didn’t really matter for well-being,” explains Exner-Cortens. “This study strongly demonstrates that violence first experienced in adolescent relationships may become chronic, and that adolescent dating violence is an important risk factor for adult partner violence.”
Exner-Cortens’ study is the first to demonstrate, in a U.S. national sample, that adolescent dating violence is uniquely implicated in a cycle of violence from adolescence to adulthood, even when comparing teens who were matched on key risk factors at the socio-demographic, individual, family, peer, school, and community levels.
“When I talk to adolescents, they may not recognize that what they’re experiencing is dating violence,” says Exner-Cortens. “For a lot of them, it's their very first encounter in a romantic setting, so they may not know that it's not healthy. So, from a primary prevention — or stopping it before it starts — standpoint, we want to be communicating healthy relationships messages to adolescents. That you have a right to be safe in your relationship, and if a partner ever makes you feel unsafe or hurts you, that's not okay, and you have a right to leave, and to seek help.”
Dating violence found to be a recurring theme over time
Exner-Cortens and colleagues analyzed a sample of 2,161 American male and female heterosexual youth from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Participants were first interviewed about their dating experiences when they were ages 12-18, and then again five and 12 years later. To measure dating violence, participants were asked if a partner had ever used insults, name-calling or disrespect in front of others; sworn at them; threatened them with violence; pushed or shoved them; or thrown objects that could hurt. Over a one-year period, about 19 per cent of teen respondents reported dating violence.
Five years after they were first victimized, female victims of adolescent dating violence had almost 1.5 times greater risk for experiencing physical adult intimate partner violence, and male victims had almost twice the risk for experiencing adult intimate partner violence. Individuals who reported intimate partner violence five years after dating violence victimization were also more likely to report intimate partner violence victimization during the 12-year followup.
These findings were all in comparison to a group who did not experience dating violence, but who were otherwise very similar in terms of risk history to dating violence victims. Variables used to create this well-matched comparison group included known predictors of adult intimate partner violence, such as child maltreatment, substance use, and mental health.
“This is the first study to show that even when we get rid of many other confounding factors, dating violence still emerges as a predictor,” says Exner-Cortens. “Something is happening in those relationships over and above other things that would predict risk. Dating violence appears to set off some sort of cycle in terms of interpersonal violence.”
Call for primary prevention measures: stopping the violence before it starts
Exner-Cortens is calling for improved screening for adolescent dating violence in health-care settings, as well as the need for intervention programs for teens who have experienced abuse in their dating relationships. Programs that prevent adolescent dating violence before it starts are also key to intimate partner violence prevention.
Study co-authors are John Eckenrode (Cornell University), John Bunge (Cornell University) and Emily Rothman (Boston University). The research was supported by funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.