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Risk and Protective Factors, Psychosocial Health Behaviors and Teen Dating Violence

Date Published
January 5, 2015

Demographic, Individual, Relational and Cultural Factors

One important goal of research on teen dating violence is to understand which youth are more vulnerable to experiencing violence in their relationships. Identifying youth at risk for violence increases the likelihood of early intervention and prevention. Researchers seek to identify the risk factors indicating an increased likelihood for dating violence and the protective factors that buffer against dating violence. Risk factors and protective factors can be found across multiple contexts or domains, including factors specific to an individual, peer group or social group, relationship, or community/environment. Multiple risk factors and protective factors may be at play within a relationship. Researchers have begun to focus on identifying which risk factors and protective factors most strongly relate to teen dating violence.

In an NIJ-funded study of 5,647 teens (51.8 percent female, 74.6 percent Caucasian) from 10 middle schools and high schools (representing grades 7 to 12) throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, researchers identified several factors related to increased risk for dating violence. The researchers focused especially on cyber abuse but found that the following factors related to multiple forms of abuse:

  • Gender: Female teens reported more cyber, psychological and sexual violence, while male teens reported more physical dating violence.
  • Sexual activity: Teens who had been involved in sexual activity were more likely to experience cyber, physical, psychological and sexual dating abuse.
  • Delinquency: The more delinquent activities that teens engaged in, the more likely they were to experience cyber, physical, psychological and sexual dating abuse.

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Another NIJ-funded study examined multiple risk factors among 223 at-risk, low-income teens in central Virginia. The study first examined potential risk factors that each partner could bring to a relationship. These factors could be grouped into four broad categories:

  • Precarious sexual history
  • Risky family background
  • Poor self-regulation skills
  • Risky social environment

When examined together, risk factors that could be changed (e.g., having delinquent peers) related more strongly to dating violence than risk factors that could not be changed (e.g., exposure to maltreatment in childhood).

The study also examined certain relationship-specific factors that might be associated with increased violence within the relationship:

  • In relationships involving high levels of delinquent behaviors by both partners, higher levels of violence were exhibited.
  • The older the teens' romantic partners were, the more likely the teens were to experience dating violence and engage in risky sexual behaviors. This finding was explained in part by the fact that the larger the age gap was between teens and their older partners, the more likely both partners were to engage in delinquent behaviors during the relationship.

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An NIJ-funded longitudinal study of 1,162 students in the Midwest examined factors that led teens to engage in bullying, sexual harassment and dating violence while in middle and high school.

The researchers found that youths who bullied other students while in middle school were more likely to engage in more serious forms of interpersonal aggression connected with dating and romantic relationships as they grew older. But the connection between bullying others in middle school and perpetrating teen dating violence in high school was not direct. Instead, bullying behavior in middle school predicted bullying behavior in high school, which, in turn, was linked to perpetrating teen dating violence.

In middle school, aggression toward a sibling was a predictor of bullying behavior for both girls and boys. For girls, family conflict and having delinquent friends were also predictors of bullying behavior. For boys, family conflict was not a predictor of bullying behavior, but both having delinquent friends and self-reported delinquency were predictors.

Among high school students, researchers found direct links between those who bullied and those who perpetrated teen dating violence. Female teens who bullied others were likely to perpetrate sexual, verbal and physical dating violence. Male teens who bullied others were likely to perpetrate verbal and physical dating violence.

NIJ-funded research also has examined factors related to victimization among a national sample of 1,525 Latino teens. Results revealed that being a victim of one type of violence might place teens at risk for other forms of violence. Many victims of dating violence also were victims of crime or of peer/sibling violence. In addition, even after accounting for the fact that young people were often victims of multiple forms of violence, dating violence, in particular, was associated with delinquency.

  • Violent delinquency was associated with greater psychological and physical dating violence.
  • Nonviolent delinquency, specifically property and drug delinquency, was associated with greater psychological dating violence.

This study also identified two factors that might help to protect against dating violence among Latino teens:

  • Cultural orientation: Teens who were more oriented toward their Latino culture were less likely to experience physical or psychological dating violence.
  • Social support: Teens who reported greater social support were less likely to experience stalking or psychological, physical or sexual dating violence

Overall, findings from NIJ-funded studies suggest a need to screen for teen dating violence and provide intervention programming among youth who have experienced other forms of violence or who have engaged in delinquent behaviors.

Psychosocial Health Behaviors

Teen dating violence has been associated with negative psychosocial health behaviors, but we cannot say definitively that teen dating violence causes negative health outcomes. Much of the research is correlational. Nevertheless, research can determine whether youth who experience dating violence are also at risk for negative psychosocial health behaviors. Knowing what types of health behaviors are associated with teen dating violence can help service providers better recognize and adequately respond to the needs of teens who experience dating violence.

The NIJ-funded study of dating violence among 5,647 teens from middle schools and high schools (representing grades 7 to 12) throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania identified two psychosocial health behaviors associated with teen dating violence:

  • Depression:Teens who reported more cyber, psychological, physical and sexual dating violence reported more frequent feelings of depression.
  • Anger/hostility: Teens who reported more cyber, psychological and physical dating violence reported more frequent feelings of anger or hostility.

Similar findings emerged from a national study of relationships among 1,525 Latino teens. Researchers controlled for a total count of the number of different types of victimization that the participants experienced, including conventional crime and peer/sibling victimization. After controlling for total victimization, dating violence remained associated with depression and hostility:

  • Experiencing sexual dating violence was associated with clinical levels of depression.
  • Experiencing psychological dating violence was associated with greater hostility.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ awards 2011-MU-FX-0022, 2010-WG-BX-0003, and 2009-W9-BX-0001, and  awarded to University of Illinois, Chicago the Urban Institute, and the Pennsylvania State University, and  respectively.

This article is based on the grantee reports "Bullying, Sexual, and Dating Violence Trajectories From Early to Late Adolescence" (pdf, pages).,  "Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying" (pdf 198 pages) and "Dating Violence Among Latino Adolescents (DAVILA) Study" (pdf, 208 pages).

Date Published: January 5, 2015