For teens, dating is about more than just finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s a critical part of adolescent development, but with reports of increased violence occurring within relationships, there is growing concern about how that early experience with dating aggression can impact young-adult relationships.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 9.4% of teens in a recent survey reported being physically abused by a romantic partner in the past 12 months — that included being slapped, hit or intentionally injured. There is also evidence that adolescents who experience violence in early relationships are more vulnerable to being abused again, and indeed the latest study on the issue published in the journal Pediatrics shows that teens who experienced aggression from a romantic partner between the ages of 12 and 18 were up to three times as likely to be revictimized in relationships as young adults.
Researchers from Cornell University tracked nearly 6,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 18 who were in heterosexual relationships, asking them about their experiences with dating violence. Specifically, they wanted to know if the children had dating partners who had sworn at them, insulted them or treated them disrespectfully in public. They also inquired about actual physical violence — if they had been pushed or shoved or had something thrown at them.
Five years later, that same group was questioned about health behaviors — things like suicidal thoughts, self-esteem, sexually risky behavior, depression, smoking and drug use — as well as if they had been the recipient of aggressive behavior by their partner in the past year. That could include being threatened with violence, pushed, shoved, hit, slapped or kicked.
The researchers found that 30% of both boys and girls reported being victims of some form of violence in their dating relationships. And those who were treated badly in their younger years were two to three times more likely to get stuck in the same patterns of dating aggression as they got older.
It’s not a trivial problem. National data estimates that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men who are raped, stalked or physically abused in a relationship had experienced similar aggression from romantic partners during adolescence. Yet, note the authors, “psychological aggression in teen dating relationships is an understudied phenomenon.”
“When early dating experiences are unhealthy, it may negatively affect teens’ view of what a healthy dating relationship should look like,” says lead author Deinera Exner-Cortens, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University.
Girls who experienced dating violence were more apt to turn to binge drinking and smoking and have suicidal thoughts as young adults compared with their peers who had not been in aggressive relationships. Boys involved in unhealthy relationships reported more marijuana use, suicidal thoughts and antisocial behaviors — damaging property and theft, for example — than boys who did not experience aggressive dating relationships.
“Unhealthy relationship experiences are associated with poor health and well-being,” says Exner-Cortens. “It’s a public-health problem that needs to be addressed through education and intervention.”
Why does dating violence put young adults at risk for unhealthy behavior? The research didn’t look at that, but it may be related to stress. Young adults who have experienced trauma may have less developed stress-management skills, says Exner-Cortens; that may prompt them to adopt potentially harmful behaviors like drinking or becoming more aggressive themselves as way to cope with their anxiety.