Teen dating violence cuts both ways

"This affects people of both genders, so let's assess them both," says Vijay Singh. "Especially in the teen years, when young people are figuring out their relationship roles, changing partners more often than adults, and likely not living together." (Credit: Paul Frankenstein/Flickr)

Nearly one in six young people in a relationship experience some kind of dating violence—and both boys and girls report being the victim and the aggressor.

The startling number is drawn from a survey of more than 4,000 adolescent patients ages 14 to 20 seeking emergency care. Violence includes punching, pulling hair, shoving, and throwing things. Further, the study indicates those with depression, or a history of using drugs or alcohol, have a higher likelihood to act as the aggressor or victim.

(Credit: Paulo Guilherme Neto/Flickr)
(Credit: Paulo Guilherme Neto/Flickr)

The findings suggest a need for health care providers to ask both young women and men about whether their relationships have ever turned violent, and to guide them to resources, says Vijay Singh, clinical lecturer in the emergency medicine and family medicine departments at University of Michigan.

“It’s important to think about both genders when trying to identify teen dating violence, especially when there are other conditions we may be trying to assess in the health care setting. These data remind us that teen relationships are not immune to violence and should encourage providers to ask adolescent patients about this important issues.

“In addition, this could help us understand whom to target for screening and referral to, or development of, programs that could help them.”

Patterns for adult relationships

Relationships in adolescence set up patterns for adult relationships, Singh says. Intervening with adolescents experiencing dating violence is crucial to prevent adult intimate partner violence.


For the study, published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Singh and colleagues analyzed data from a larger survey of teens and young adults aged 14 to 20 years who visited the University of Michigan Health System’s emergency department for any reason between late 2010 and early 2013. The teens took the surveys on touch-screen tablet computers in private, though those younger than age 18 needed their parents’ consent to take part.

While the researchers didn’t ask about the gender of the teen’s partner or about emotional or sexual abuse, the new data give new insight into teen dating violence that builds on school-based and smaller healthcare-based studies.

ER screenings

In all, one in five young women said they had been the victim or aggressor in a violent situation in the last year with a romantic partner, and one in eight young men reported the same, suggesting that emergency departments can aid in identifying dating violence.

Interestingly, teen girls who had sought emergency care for an intentional injury in the last year had twice the odds of reporting violence in their dating relationships. That finding, Singh says, lends credence to the idea that the emergency department could be an important site for screening.

“We may ask ‘How did you get that injury?,’ but often if someone has been a victim of violence, they don’t want to disclose that, and it takes repeated questioning in a sensitive way to find out more,” he says.

Last year, the top national panel for preventive health services recommended that all women between the ages of 14 and 46 be asked about relationship violence during health care visits.

But the lack of data on men as both victims and aggressors means there isn’t a similar recommendation for screening them. Singh says he hopes the news study will add to the understanding of how dating violence affects young men.

Help is available

“This affects people of both genders, so let’s assess them both,” Singh says. “Especially in the teen years, when young people are figuring out their relationship roles, changing partners more often than adults, and likely not living together.”

His colleagues and coauthors of the new study, Maureen Walton. of the psychiatry department, and Rebecca Cunningham, of the emergency medicine department, are testing a behavioral intervention tool in urban emergency departments that aims to help teens understand how to reduce violence of all kinds in their lives.

Singh urges all teens, and those who love them, to be aware of phone and online resources that can help them identify and respond to unhealthy tendencies in their relationships—and get help when things threaten to turn violent.

That includes the toll-free, 24-hour, multi-language National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE, as well as Love is Respect, which focuses on teens.

The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse funded the study with additional support from the University of Michigan Injury Center, which is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: University of Michigan