How schools can prevent teen dating abuse

"This study suggests that creating spaces for young people to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to help their friends can really help to reduce adolescent relationship abuse," says Elizabeth Miller. (Credit: Ronnie Pitman/Flickr)

School-based intervention may be an effective way to address and even prevent teen dating abuse, a new study shows.

Researchers conducted the study during the 2012-2013 academic year at eight school-based health centers in California where students receive confidential clinical health services.


For the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, 1,062 teens ages 14 to 19 were asked about their exposure to adolescent relationship abuse (including cyber dating abuse), sexual behavior, and care-seeking for sexual and reproductive health at their initial visit and again three months later.

Providers and staff in four school-based health centers received training on how to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships; received palm-sized brochures about relationship abuse and available resources to hand out to patients; and learned how to refer youth to additional services and supports.

No changes were implemented at the other four school-based health centers.

Students at the intervention sites were more likely than those at the other sites to recognize sexual coercion. Among students who reported relationship abuse at the initial visit on a confidential survey, students at intervention schools were significantly less likely to report such abuse on the follow-up survey three months later.

Talking about it

“This study shows that a universal education and brief counseling approach in health care settings may be a useful way to address relationship abuse among adolescents,” says lead investigator Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics s and chief of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at University of Pittsburgh.

“Clinicians talking about healthy and unhealthy relationships with all of their patients can make a difference.”

Among almost 400 youth who reported experiencing relationship abuse at an initial visit, 65 percent of students in intervention schools reported still experiencing such abuse about three months later, compared to 80 percent of students in the other schools.

In addition, youth in the intervention clinics were much more likely to discuss being in an unhealthy relationship with their health care provider.

Empowering teenagers

“Embedding prevention messages and information about relevant resources within clinical settings for adolescents may be an effective way to reduce relationship abuse,” says Lisa James, the director of Health at Futures Without Violence and a co-investigator on the study.

“Youth seeking care in adolescent health settings appear to have more exposure to relationship abuse and associated poor health outcomes,” Miller says. “Finding an intervention that may make a difference for these youth who are at higher risk for relationship abuse is encouraging.”

“This study effectively combined school-based clinical interventions with youth-led promotion of healthy adolescent relationships,” says co-investigator Samantha Blackburn, formerly with the California School-Based Health Alliance, and now an assistant professor of nursing at California State University Sacramento. “Not only did students receive needed services, they were also empowered to help their peers be healthy and safe.”

“Prevention of relationship abuse among adolescents requires a range of strategies from educating youth and adults about the extent of the problem; connecting youth to relevant supports and services; and engaging schools, parents, and other influential adults to talk about healthy relationships,” says co-investigator Alison Chopel from the Public Health Institute’s California Adolescent Health Collaborative.  “This intervention is a part of the prevention solution.”

The researchers are hopeful that the findings will encourage schools and adolescent health care providers to implement this program, Miller says.

“This study suggests that creating spaces for young people to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to help their friends can really help to reduce adolescent relationship abuse.”

The National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice supported the study.

Source: University of Pittsburgh