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Peer groups, family stability play roles in abusive dating

This is the fifth in a series of articles about abuse and violence in adolescent dating and romantic relationships.

Q: What are the social influences that shape adolescent abuse and violence in their intimate relationships?

A: Adolescent peer groups are the most powerful influence on teen dating relationships. They define dating norms and provide the social environment in which teens find dating partners.

Friends who practice violence in relationships serve as role models for other teens. When friends suffer no consequences and others in their peer groups praise and admire abusive behavior, teens accept these coercive and aggressive behaviors. The peer group thus can normalize violence and abuse in teen dating behavior.

In addition, teens who practice aggression with their peers are more likely to use aggression in dating.

Teens who suffer "rejection sensitivity" from past relationships and who are susceptible to peer influences are also more likely to imitate aggressive peers. "Rejection sensitivity" refers to past experience with rejection from significant others in their lives such as parents or parent surrogates.

This experience sets up a pattern that can be activated by rejection from adolescent peer groups. The sensitivity to rejection can lead to either aggressive behavior in dating or victimization, in which a dating partner endures abuse in order to preserve a relationship.

For adolescents who are very susceptible to peer influence, there is a positive correlation between behavior with peers and behavior in dating relationships. When aggression is present in relationships with best friends, these influences are more significant than those influences from more casual acquaintances in peer groups. There seems to be a major transfer of aggression in peer relationships to aggression in dating.

Another factor significant in the development of teen dating abuse and violence is the presence of bullying in adolescents.

When teens have established aggression as a way to solve problems and resolve conflicts, they transfer these patterns into their dating relationships. Teens are more receptive to anti-violence education from their peers than from experts and parents. They consult each other for advice, a practice which can result in a vicious cycle that reinforces poor choices and dating maladaptive behaviors.

The above information is provided from a 2009 article in the Prevention Researcher, "Peer Group Influences on Adolescent Dating Aggression," by authors Jennifer Connolly, Ph.D., and Laura Friedlander, W.A.

Research from the Add Health project, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, addressed the study of the relationship between the history of family structure and teen romance. The article was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (August 2008).

The most compelling aspect of family structure history was instability.

Changes in family structure that dictated changes in family life played key roles in influencing the romantic relationships of teens. Timing of family structure and family life changes also mattered. The most susceptible children were those in middle childhood or early adolescence.

The impact of cumulative family instability on teen romances seems to be more consequential for boys than girls.

In addition, younger teens were more profoundly influenced by family patterns of instability in romantic relationships than older teens.

From the Canadian Journal of Youth Adolescence (2008), authors from the University of Victoria, Canada reported on research about the relative influences of peers and parents on teen dating. A protective factor in reducing both relationship aggression and dating victimization is good parenting. However, positive peer relationships can offset the effects of poor parenting. The relative importance of family and peers seems to be related to many environmental social forces not yet clearly understood.

Another research study from the Journal of Family Psychology, 2004, presented results about the relationship of interparental conflict and adolescent dating relationships. The study was conducted among 391 adolescents from 14 to 18 years by researchers from Marquette University.

The study suggests experiencing interparental aggression affects the development of boys in ways that undermine their abilities to resolve relationship conflicts and to establish good dating relationships.

The skills that thus are lacking in boys are appropriate attitudes about violence, communication skills and anger management. Interparental conflicts were not related to the aggressive behavior of girls.

In the American Journal of Public Health, 2001, a study reported findings on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health data that examined adolescent intimate partner violence. The data covered 75,000 adolescents.

A third of the teens reported victimization and 12 percent reported physical violence. There was variation by gender and type of victimization. Psychological violence and minor physical violence were common in male-female romantic teen relationships.

Swearing was the most common psychological abuse. About 1 in 5 adolescents reported psychological abuse and 1 in 10 reported physical violence, usually accompanied by psychological violence.

Victimization was identical for males and females except for insults and disrespectful treatment in front of friends. These latter two behaviors were more often reported by girls.

Older adolescents had higher rates of victimization, for both males and females.

Other demographic factors such as individual temperaments, developmental histories, poverty and school environments do affect teen romances, but those results were not part of the study. However, the study did make recommendations to study the impact of risk factors in teen couples.

Two high-risk teens would increase the odds of dysfunction. One high-risk and one low-risk or two low-risk teens would significantly reduce the risk of violence in teen dating.

* Next week's article will discuss the effects of teen violence in dating relationships.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.