The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Violence in Teen Dating—The Family Roots of the Problem

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Concerned about the disturbingly high levels of violence in teen dating relationships, social workers and public-health officials are investing considerable effort in educational strategies for combatting the problem. Those designing these strategies, however, generally ignore a prime incubator of teen dating violence, an incubator that comes into sharp focus in a study recently completed at Bowling Green State University. That typically overlooked incubator is that of being reared in a broken home.       

Alarmed by “the phenomenon of teen dating violence (TDV),” the authors of this new study begin their inquiry into the problem aware of the “troubling rates of perpetration and victimization” for such violence and conscious that “early (adolescent) exposure” to this problem predicts “risk for later IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] during adult life.”   

To gauge the extent of the problem and to identify the circumstances that foster it, the researchers examine data collected between 2001 and 2011 from 955 seventh, ninth, and eleventh graders (467 males and 488 females) attending public schools in Lucas County, Ohio. These data indicate that approximately one in six of the students in the study (16.33%) had committed violent acts against a dating partner during adolescence.

In analyzing the antecedents of teen dating violence, the researchers focus largely on “exposure to friends’ violence” and on “the normative climate of schools.” But careful readers will quickly realize that teens’ family background looms very large as a predictor of such violence. In their statistical analysis of the data, the authors of the study indeed acknowledge “the significant differences with respect to family structure, where both single-parent and ‘other’ family types [i.e., grandparent and other no-parent family types] are significantly more likely to report TDV perpetration than are respondents from two biological parent families, at 2.1 and 2.4 times, respectively [p <0.001 for both comparisons].”  

Given that adolescents from broken homes are more than twice as likely to commit violent acts against a teen dating partner than peers from two-biological-parent homes, readers are hardly surprised when the researchers note that “the family is a robust predictor, whether the focus is on TDV [Teen Dating Violence] or violence that occurs within adult relationships.” But what may puzzle—even astonish—readers is the way the researchers avert their eyes from family considerations in concluding comments on the implications of their findings for “efforts designed to deter or interrupt dating violence.”  

Perhaps “prevention efforts targeting teens” should—as the researchers argue in their conclusion—include “a peer component or emphasis” that engages teens in “discussions about relationship dynamics associated with conflict escalation” and that helps them realize “the harmful effects of resorting to violence within one’s intimate relationships.” But so long as a large number of teens grow up in broken homes, these prevention efforts are all too often going to prove futile.

(Peggy C. Giordano et al., “Teen Dating Violence: The Influence of Friendships and School Context,” Sociological Focus 48.2 [2015]: 150-71.)