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Preventing Teen Dating Violence: We Need to Start Early


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define relationship violence as actual or threatened physical and/or sexual violence used by an intimate partner to cause death, disability, injury, or harm to victims, and psychological abuse used to cause trauma in victims.

As reported recently on CNN, MSNBC, and National Public Radio, research has shown that a staggering number (44%) of insured women in a Washington state health plan had experienced abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

These alarming rates of physical, psychological, and sexual relationship violence are also evident in a younger population. For example, in a recent survey of Ohio State University students, a significant number (43%) of the nearly 7,000 male and female respondents reported that the hitting or beating of women by boyfriends or husbands is a problem among students.

However, this is not just a problem for adults and college students. Approximately 11% of dating 8th and 9th graders are victims of sexually violent acts, such as forced sex and forced intimate contact. Another 35% are victims of nonsexual acts, such as being pushed, slapped, or kicked by a dating partner. Almost 3% of dating adolescents commit sexually violent acts, and almost 20% perpetrate nonsexual, physically violent acts among adolescents of this age group.

Victims are more likely than others to experience a range of adverse health consequences. For example, as compared to adolescent girls not exposed to relationship violence, those exposed to some form of relationship violence report lower quality of life and higher rates of:

  • suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases
  • heavy smoking and alcohol use
  • driving under the influence of alcohol
  • cocaine use
  • and eating disorders.

Also, as part of the previously mentioned Washington state study, it has been documented that the mental and social health of women who have experienced physical or sexual relationship violence in the past five years is comparable to or worse than the health of persons with diabetes and some forms of cancer.

Problems this severe do not develop overnight. To stop them, awareness campaigns are very much needed. However, waiting to target high school and college students may be too late. Research shows that many adolescents become victims or perpetrators of violence in their early dating experiences. Once relationship violence has occurred, there is a high likelihood that it will occur again, whether it be in the same relationship and/or in new relationships. School districts should really start talking about respect and love in the earlier years, before dating begins.

What research shows about solutions

Early prevention increases the likelihood that violence perpetration and victimization are addressed. Research suggests that relationship violence occurrence is increased if youth:

  • expect positive results from the use of violence
  • accept the use of violence to resolve conflict
  • have witnessed relationship violence at home
  • have traditional gender role expectations

Intervening with youth on these salient risk factors increases the likelihood that they will grow into young adults who use prosocial conflict resolution and problem-solving behaviors. It also increases the likelihood that they will have healthy beliefs about intimate relationships.

School-based preventive interventions — such as the well-designed and tested Safe Dates program — are among the most promising approaches to violence prevention for adolescents. Safe Dates targets 8th and 9th grade dating and non-dating youth, using a multi-faceted prevention approach that includes:

  • a 10-session curriculum (instruction, role playing and analyzing scenarios, and writing exercises)
  • a student theater performance
  • and a poster contest.

Students in schools that used the Safe Dates program were found to have:

  • less psychological abuse
  • less sexual violence
  • and less violence perpetrated against a dating partner

compared to students in schools that did not receive Safe Dates. Greater improvements were also observed in students who took part in the Safe Dates program in dating violence norms, gender stereotyping, and awareness of services to help victims, factors that are associated with violence perpetration and victimization.

Schools provide an ideal context for organizing peer activities designed to promote and allow practice of prosocial interactions. In schools, educators are more likely to have access to high risk youth due to mandatory school attendance and can help model prosocial behaviors for students. Health promotion and drama teachers can offer behavior change content as part of their program’s curricula.

The Safe Dates program offers numerous strengths, relationship violence prevention programs. However, researchers now think that programs targeting younger youth before they begin dating — youth transitioning to the 6th and 7th grade — may have larger effects.

Violence prevention experts give the following reasons for targeting such programs to youth transitioning to middle school:

  • At this age, peers become the primary focus of relationships. This provides an ideal time to identify and influence negative beliefs and patterns of behavior related to relationship violence.
  • Many youth in this age group have not begun dating, and therefore first time acts of violence can be avoided.
  • Many youth do not have fully developed beliefs and behavior patterns that put them at risk
  • Youth may be less likely to have fully developed beliefs about the right to victimize others based on gender stereotypes and ideas about domination.

To reduce the problem of relationship violence, and the associated costs to the victims, families, and communities, researchers and educators must continue to develop viable prevention models that target youth before they start dating.

This article is based on information provided by The Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2007.

For more information:

Go to the Domestic Violence health topic.