One of the more alarming trends in the adolescent and young adult dating world over the past few decades is the increase in reports of dating violence. Specifically, more than 50% of adolescents with dating experience report some past dating violence, whether as perpetrator or victim.1 Moreover, today’s adolescent dating violence, which often results from conflicts that get out of hand, generally shows no gender bias: both young women and young men are equally likely to perpetrate (and be victims). When it comes to public health issues, the prevalence of teen dating violence is a pretty big deal, which is why the Centers for Disease Control has an entire section of their website dedicated to educating people about healthy teen relationships, and researchers are giving considerable attention to the issue.
Of the work coming out on the topic, one recent study caught my attention. As a parent of young children, I naturally wonder whether there’s anything I can do to minimize the likelihood that my kids will find themselves on the receiving or perpetrating end of violence when they start exploring the complex world that is romantic relationships. Like a lot of parents, my natural inclination would be to remind my future adolescent daters about the risks that come with romantic involvement (e.g., heartbreak, being used, etc.), and perhaps even subtly discourage them from jumping into anything too soon. Although I’d like to think I’ll have an open mind about these things, I am realistic and know my ‘dad’ role will very often trump my ‘researcher’ role. Alas, it turns out that I may have to once again rethink my future approach.
The researchers tested whether a parent’s negativity about their kid’s dating (e.g., discouraging dating) increases the negativity between the adolescent and parent (e.g., fighting about the suitability of a boyfriend or girlfriend). They argued that this negativity would then spill over into the dating relationship (e.g., more conflict and less trust), and, in turn, increase the likelihood that the kids become involved in a violent relationship.2 The general thinking is illustrated below:
To test most of this logic (not all of it; more on that below), the researchers analyzed data from 625 adolescent/young adults who participated in a large-scale study of adolescents in Toledo, OH, beginning around age 15 (Time 1) thru age 18 (Time 2). The study measures included:
- Parents’ dating negativity: how often parents demonstrated negative ideas about dating, including interfering with their kids’ romantic endeavors (e.g., “I have forbidden my child to date someone”), encouraging caution (“e.g., “Told my child to wait until she/he is older before getting involved with someone”), and promoting mistrust (e.g., “Boys are only after one thing”).
- Parent-child conflict about dating: how often adolescents report disagreeing with their parents about dating.
- Adolescent gender mistrust: the extent to which adolescents report not trusting others in a romantic context (e.g., “Guys will say anything to get a girl” and “Girls will often use a guy to make another guy jealous”)
- Intimate partner violence: the extent to which adolescents report common forms of violence, including hitting, shoving, and throwing something at a person, as a perpetrator or victim.
Forty percent of the sample experienced at least some violence during the study, and reports of violence were greater when parents reported more dating negativity. Additionally, parent-child conflict about dating and adolescent gender mistrust was also associated with reports of violence; more conflict and mistrust led to more violence. Interestingly, the ‘strength’ of the link between parental dating negativity and adolescent dating violence was reduced after accounting for parent-child conflict about dating and adolescent gender mistrust. This latter finding suggests that at least part of the reason parents’ dating negativity increases the likelihood of dating violence is because parents’ negativity creates more conflict with their children and causes them to trust others less. In other words, when parents tell their kids to not trust others, the kids may actually listen to their parents (imagine that); not trusting others is (generally) not a good way to approach relationships as a lack of trust increases opportunities for conflict.
Although the researchers had a measure of intimate partner violence, they didn’t have a direct measure of negative interactions in adolescents’ dating relationships; however, previous research already clearly establishes that negative interactions are a strong predictor of violence.3 Thus, these results don’t necessarily ‘prove’ the chain of events outlined above on their own, but they do provide some solid evidence that something to that effect is happening. Or, as the study authors put it: “It is somewhat ironic that such indications that parents are actively engaged in their child’s romantic lives (i.e., they take a stand by offering strong cautions to delay dating or expressing misgivings about romantic partner choices) not only appear to be ineffective but are tied to greater risk.”
This whole parenting thing is hard.
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1Halpern, C., Oslak, S. G., Young, M. L., Martin, S. L., & Kupper, L. L. (2001). Partner violence among adolescents in opposite-sex romantic relationships: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. American Journal of Public Health, 91(10), 1679-1685. doi:10.2105/AJPH.91.10.1679
2Giordano, P. C., Johnson, W. L., Manning, W. D., & Longmore, M. A. (in press). Parenting in adolescence and young adult intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Issues. doi:10.1177/0192513X13520156
3Johnson, M. P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 283–294.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.