Recent research has documented the emergence of dating violence behaviors among middle-school-aged youth. Given that dating violence among this age group has received relatively little attention in the literature, researchers Elizabeth A. Goncy, Albert D. Farrell, and Terri N. Sullivan at Virginia Commonwealth University led a project funded by NIJ in order to better understand dating violence for early identification and development of targeted prevention and intervention strategies.
Among an ethnically diverse group of middle school students in a mid-sized southern city, about 40 percent of respondents endorsed at least one act of psychological or physical dating violence perpetration, and almost 50 percent reported experiencing one act of psychological or physical dating violence victimization in the past three months. In addition, five different profiles of dating violence emerged:
- Uninvolved (54.6 percent)
- Victims (8.3 percent)
- Aggressors (9.7 percent)
- Aggressive Victims (5.4 percent)
- Psychologically Aggressive Victims (22.0 percent).
Dating aggression during early adolescence was found to be best measured as a two-factor model that consisted of general dating violence perpetration and victimization, instead of differentiating between forms (e.g., physical, psychological). Accounting for the severity and frequency of specific acts, instead of treating all items as equal contributors, also worked better for measurement. Data also showed that dating violence perpetration and victimization were distinct from general violence and victimization, suggesting the necessity for prevention and intervention programs that are specific to dating violence.
Regarding trajectories across middle school, youth with higher initial levels of dating violence victimization and perpetration tended to show decreases over time, whereas youth with lower initial levels showed increases over time. However, there were significant sex differences, such that boys tended to experience more victimization, but less perpetration, compared to girls, and subsequently showed decreases in both across time. In contrast, girls tended to show an increase in victimization and perpetration across middle school. This indicates that especially for girls, an important transition may take place during middle school that increases their risk, which could be critical for structuring prevention/intervention programs; for instance, programs that do not start until after middle school may miss an important time window.
Youth who were physically and psychologically aggressive in their dating relationships were physically aggressive in other domains as well. The same is true for youth who were primarily victimized in their dating relationships. Youth who reported any sort of victimization reported more trauma-related distress symptoms, even if they were also aggressive. This suggests that programs may need to be tailored for students experiencing dating violence victimization, as they may also have higher rates of trauma-related distress or involvement in other forms of violence.
This project primarily involved a secondary analysis of a five-year project (VCU-YVPC) that collected data on youth violence and related risk factors as part of an evaluation of violence prevention efforts. The VCU-YVPC project was conducted in three middle schools in Richmond, Virginia. Data were collected four times a year (October, January, April, July) from students in sixth-eighth grades over multiple years; students participated until they finished middle school or chose to discontinue participation. Only students with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past three months during at least one wave were included. The final sample consisted of seven cohorts of middle school students involved in dating, which included 1,410 participants (83 percent African American or Black, 15 percent Hispanic or Latino/a; 53 percent female) ranging in age from 11-16 (95 percent were between ages 11-14), specifically from the fall of the sixth grade (average age = 11.82 years) to the summer after the eighth grade (average age = 14.69 years).
In addition to the VCU-YVPC sample, a second dataset, the Multisite Violence Prevention Program (MVPP) was also used for the project, specifically to address questions regarding measurement. This included data from students recruited from 37 schools in four regions in the U.S. across two cohorts. The sample chosen from this dataset consisted of 3,894 participants (49 percent Black, 19 percent Hispanic, 16 percent White, 8 percent Multiracial, and 8 percent Another race; 48 percent female) who reported that they had a boyfriend or girlfriend in the last three months at either the beginning of the sixth grade (2,823 participants) or the end of the eighth grade (2,456 participants).
About This Article
The work described in this article was supported by NIJ grant 2012-IJ-CX-0014, awarded to Virginia Commonwealth University.
This article is based on the grantee report “Teen Dating Violence Victimization in an Urban Sample of Early Adolescents: Measurement, Prevalence,” by Elizabeth A. Goncy, Albert D. Farrell, and Terri N. Sullivan.