Teen dating violence represents a serious public health and criminal justice problem. Although several risk factors for teen dating violence have been identified, the causes and mechanisms that lead to its development are still unclear.
Children of alcoholic parents, given their increased exposure to marital violence and higher risk for other negative outcomes (e.g., aggression, poor self-regulation, substance use), may be especially at risk for involvement in teen dating violence. However, it is still not understood how these risk factors unfold and progress throughout a child’s life to ultimately contribute to teen dating violence.
Findings from two NIJ-funded studies that focused on high-risk youth highlight the importance of family context in the development of aggression and teen dating violence. Jennifer Livingston, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the University at Buffalo conducted two studies to examine possible developmental pathways, including family-based risks that contribute to, and protective factors that discourage, involvement in teen dating violence.
Both studies looked at a single sample that included 185 high-risk adolescents, 95 girls and 90 boys, whose fathers had problems with alcohol. These 11th- and 12th-grade adolescents, slightly younger than 18 years old and white, were part of a longitudinal study on the effects of alcohol problems on parenting and child development.
The first study looked at the emergence of adolescent teen dating violence involvement, examining various family-based risk factors.
Finally, mothers with alcoholic partners tended to exhibit lower warmth during the toddler years, which was associated with lower child self-regulation during preschool. Lower self-regulation in turn was linked to aggression from childhood through adolescence. Aggression during childhood, as well as paternal antisocial behavior, were associated with sibling conflict during middle childhood, which then predicted involvement in teen dating violence in late adolescence.
The second study examined the role of parenting in the development of teen dating violence. The researchers found that lower maternal acceptance and higher exposure to marital conflict in early adolescence were both independently associated with involvement in teen dating violence. Further, they found that maternal acceptance served as a protective factor blunting or weakening the correlation between marital conflict and teen dating violence.
These studies highlight the importance of the family context in the development of aggression and teen dating violence in high-risk youth and have significant implications for intervention and prevention. Specifically, positive parenting (e.g., maternal acceptance) and self-regulation were shown to be crucial protective influences that have effects extending to late adolescence. Furthermore, family-based interventions may be most effective for targeting aggression and teen dating violence in adolescents, particularly for those at higher risk due to parental psychopathology. In particular, programs that focus on improving parents’ mental health, marital conflict, and parenting skills may prove to be particularly beneficial.
About this Article
This article is based on research funded under grant 2012-W9-BX-0001 awarded to the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Read the complete study results in the final grant report, Developmental Pathways of Teen Dating Violence in a High-Risk Sample (pdf, 28 pages) .
[note 1] The initial sample consisted of 227 families (116 girls, 111 boys) with 12-month-old infants who were recruited from county birth records. These families were assessed when the children were 12, 18, 24, and 36 months; and when they were in kindergarten and in 4th, 6th, 8th, and 11th/12th grades. The composition of the original recruitment was primarily white (91.9 percent; 2.7 percent Black, 5.4 percent multiracial).