FVPF eJournal
Futures Without Violence eJournal
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More Common Than You Think: Dating Violence

Increasing awareness about teens experiencing abuse in dating relationships was reflected in the extensive coverage of this topic at the Fifth National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence.  In addition to pre-conference and plenary sessions, there was a wide range of workshops on dating violence providing new information on data collection, innovative practices, resources, and evaluation.  The need to reach youth during the middle school years or earlier was a consistent theme throughout the conference.

The pre-conference, called “52% of Youth Said Rihanna and Chris Brown Both to Blame: Challenging Notions of Dating Violence Among Youth,” began with a discussion of this high profile case and data from a national survey on the high prevalence of dating violence among “tweens”-children between the ages of 11 and 14 years old.  Shifting the focus to prevention, program staff from three of the communities that are being funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships initiative described their multi-prong prevention plans that include school-based curricula, youth leadership development, involving parents and other adult mentors, and a media campaign.

Implications of Adolescent Brain Development

Arnold Perkins introduced the plenary session on “Promoting Healthy Tween Relationships” by noting that children are growing up much faster in an age of rapid information.  Dr. Abigail Baird, Assistant Professor at Vassar College, provided insight into the developing adolescent brain. She started by stressing three key points:

1)      Adolescents can not feel the future

2)      Peers matter A LOT!

3)      Boys and girls are different

Infusing a dose of humor into the complex topic of neural development, Dr. Baird described where emotions originate in the brain and how teens are still building the region of their brains that will help them to manage emotions, use better judgment, and understand the consequences of their behaviors.  As adolescents mature, there is increasing coordination between the emotional and cognitive regions of the brain that will help them to quickly assess and react to danger.  One of her take-home messages was that we need to replace that frequently asked question of teens from “what were you thinking?” to ask “what were you feeling?”  During adolescence, the brain is tuned in to learn about its social environment.  Describing her research on the influence of peers during adolescence, Dr. Baird challenged the audience to determine how we can harness positive peer pressure to promote healthy teen relationships.

Considering the Impact of Life Experiences

Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett, Assistant Professor at Boston University, advocated for a life course prospective that recognizes  how early life experiences can impact development and health later in life.  Describing adolescence as a critical period of transition and brain plasticity, she noted that chronic stress can influence teens’ stress response, socioemotional development, health, and risk behaviors. Emphasizing the importance of studying the interface between puberty and dating violence, Dr. Boynton-Jarrett made the connection between early sexual maturation, the early onset of dating and sexual debut, and the increased risk of depression, pregnancy, and sexual transmitted diseases.   Describing how trauma within a family can interfere with parents’ ability to meet a child’s socioemotional needs, she encouraged service providers to create a safe place for families to talk about what is happening in their lives as well as past experiences.

Prevention in the Pediatric Setting

Rebecca Levin, Senior Manager of Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention Initiatives at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), concluded this plenary session with an overview of the AAP’s violence prevention and parenting program, “Connected Kids: Safe, Strong, Secure.“   This program is designed to support clinicians’ efforts to prevent youth violence.  Key components of “Connected Kids” include:

  • A clinical guide with sample scripts and a counseling schedule for talking with parents and children
  • Handouts for parents and children
  • A website with downloadable resources (www.connectforkids.org)

Clinicians are encouraged to set the stage by starting to talk early with parents and their children about healthy relationships.  Strategies for counseling parents include questions such as “how do you teach your teenager to be safe?“  Counseling for youth include questions about dating violence and who they turn to for help and advice.

Two brochures on healthy relationships are available through the program.  The brochure for teens, called “Expect Respect,” uses a “cosmo” (Cosmopolitan magazine) approach with checklists and tips to help teens evaluate their relationships and identify warning early signs of abuse.  The parent brochure offers tips on how parents can support their children in seeking healthy, non-violent relationships.

Eye-opening Dating Violence Data from New York City

Two of the workshops presented data from a multi-site, cross-sectional survey of over 1,300 students attending four high schools in New York City. The study, “Partners and Peers: Sexual and Dating Violence Amongst NYC Youth,” was conducted through a partnership between the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault and the Columbia Center for Youth Violence Prevention at Columbia University with funding from the New York City Council and the Centers for Disease Control.

Nearly three-quarters of the male and female respondents were Latino. Among teens, ages 14-18, more than three-quarters (78%) were dating or had at least one dating relationship.  Sixty-three percent were sexually active within the past year.  More than half (56%) of youth reported physical dating violence at some point in their lives.  Nearly one-third (30%) were experiencing physical abuse from a current dating partner while 32% reported perpetrating one or more incidents of physical dating violence toward their partner.

The survey included questions on teens’ help-seeking behaviors.  Approximately 60% of youth experiencing dating violence told someone about the violence; 70% of these youth told their friends first.  When asked how teens help a friend, responses included giving a friend advice, telling a friend to leave a partner, referring a friend to a hotline, and advising a friend to talk to an adult.  Among teens who took further action to help a friend who disclosed dating violence, nearly half (47%) talked to an adult.

These data and other findings on youth who reported having a friend in a violent relationship and characteristics of youth who are more likely to give advise to a friend in a violent relationship can be found in the report which can be downloaded at: www.nycagainstrape.org/research_par_3.html

More Data and Innovative Practices

A wide range of workshops provided state-of-the-art information on data collection efforts, innovative practices, and resources.  The workshops on dating violence included:

  • An innovative program called “Teens Not Gone Wild” that is taught by Louisiana State University nursing faculty and students in primary and secondary schools.  Strategies include teaching assertiveness skills and media literacy to help teens recognize the role that media plays in misogynistic messages and desensitizing youth to violence.
  • An initiative called “Project Respect” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that builds staff  leadership and the capacity to decrease teen dating and sexual violence.
  • A media production project that created a training DVD on dating violence intervention for school staff. The DVD, which was developed by a multi-cultural team of researchers, a media expert, peer student educators, a school nurse, and a DV counselor, is delivered through the intranet of a school system as required training.
  • Campus organizing strategies that are being used to raise awareness about domestic violence among health professional staff and students.
  • An evaluation of an antiviolence program on a college campus that offered training for university police and housing staff, engaged higher education administrators in anti-DV initiatives, and implemented strategies to engage the general student population.
  • An intervention that is adapting brief motivational interviewing to address teen dating violence perpetration in the emergency department setting.  This approach, called Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), has been found to be effective for reducing marijuana and alcohol use among adolescents seen in pediatric emergency departments.
  • A cross-sectional study that examined the association between immigration status and the risk of physical dating violence among Hispanic girls.
  • A national participatory action study in Canada that is examining violence in the lives of girls, how institutions may contribute to the victimization of girls and women, strategies to counter systemic and intimate partner violence, and the use of arts-based approaches to initiate action and change.
  • An arts-based, interactive theater program to promote healthy relationships and prevent peer teasing/bullying, sexual bullying/harassment, and teen dating violence among Hispanic/Mexican American middle school students in Texas.
  • A statewide coordinated community response in New Mexico to end teen dating violence by promoting resiliency, positive youth development, and peer-to-peer education.   Partners include the Department of Health, school-based health centers, schools, youth serving agencies, domestic violence advocacy organizations, and youth as leaders.

Dating violence is a topic within the field of family violence that is gaining greater visibility as research develops.  We anticipate seeing more population-based data, findings from rigorous evaluation studies, and research on the health effects of dating violence at the next National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence.