Date Fighting Linked to Drug Use, Other Destructive Behaviors in Teenagers

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 9, 1999 (Washington) -- While it is known that violence occurs among college-aged individuals in relationships, hitting and verbal abuse are too often part of the lives of adolescents just beginning to date. And a new study shows that such fights can be accompanied by a host of other life-threatening and self-destructive behaviors, such as drug use and unprotected sex.

"The importance of this is adolescents who are engaging in relationship violence are more likely to extend that when they become adults ... when they get into a marriage or cohabitation relationship, they are more likely to engage in domestic violence," says Robert H. DuRant, PhD, tells WebMD. DuRant is the senior author of the study and a professor of pediatrics and vice-chairman of the department of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Engaging in violent behaviors does not occur out of the blue. It is [prompted by] what they are exposed to in the environment and in the home," he adds. "What this shows is that our prevention programs need to be more comprehensive in nature. Our prevention programs tend to be whatever is the flavor of the month -- let's do HIV prevention, or suicide, or pregnancy. You have to address all of these behaviors simultaneously because that is how they occur. They occur together and they are reinforced together."

The study by DuRant and his colleagues, published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics, shows that adolescent girls who reported fighting with a date were more likely to have attempted suicide, had unprotected sex, and injected illegal drugs, than girls who did not fight with dates. "Date fighting was also associated with the frequency of riding in a car with a drinking driver, number of pregnancies, frequency of inhalant use, and having drunk alcohol or used drugs prior to their last sexual experience," according to the study.

Among adolescent males, date fighting increased 4.2 times among those who had three or more male sexual partners in the previous three months. "There is a fair amount of overlap," DuRant, between how boys and girls who have engaged in date fighting behave in terms of other destructive behaviors. "When you compare both males and females, forced sex, having been threatened in the past with a weapon, pregnancy, and date fighting are important issues for both [sexes]."

The study is based on responses to the 91-question Youth Behavior Risk Survey, completed by almost 21,000 students in grades eight through 12 who attended Vermont schools in 1995. Of those, over 8,700 reported never having been in a fight, 432 (2%) reported having been in a physical fight with someone in the previous three months who was a dating partner, and over 11,000 said they had been in a physical fight with someone other than a date. The mean age for reporting date fighting was 16 years old and the mean grade was 10th.

In an interview with WebMD seeking an objective review of the findings, Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D. called the study "an eye-opener. It is instructive, with a couple of messages," says Resnick, a sociologist who is conducting similar research. "Dating violence happens, dating violence happens in adolescence, dating violence happens with boys and girls, and involvement in dating violence may or may not involve opposite-sex partners." Resnick is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and Director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center at UM.

The findings in this study, and other similar ones, should prompt more screening for high-risk behaviors by doctors, says DuRant, and encourage parents to talk to their children about such issues. DuRant notes that some adolescents need help recognizing verbal and even physical abuse as examples of violence that they need to stop. For example, in some studies, adolescents have indicated they have not been subject to violence, but paradoxically also report they have suffered intimidation, threats, and even been hit.

DuRant says parents need to model good behaviors for their children and limit their exposure to bad behaviors, yet allow them to mature and separate from them by encouraging what he calls "positive" risk-taking behaviors. "The first time they apply for job, when they ask someone out, those are healthy risk-taking behaviors, and they serve the same developmental needs as high-risk behaviors, such as building confidence and acceptance of peers," he says.

Adds Resnick, "As a ... parent, don't assume that you know what your kid is -- or isn't -- doing. When kids are involved in dating violence, there are a whole lot of other things going on in their lives ... they are distressed kids. The challenge is teaching these kids to unlearn violent behavior as a [normal], everyday response to life. The good news is there are a lot of ways to do that. It is always valuable to teach kids how to listen, about mutuality of respect, about nonviolent responses, about the practice of cooling down a violent situation."

Vital Information:

  • Dating violence among adolescence is associated with several other destructive behaviors, such as suicide attempts, unprotected sex, pregnancy, and illegal drug use.
  • Prevention programs should be more comprehensive, according to one expert, instead of targeting only one destructive behavior at a time, since the behaviors often occur simultaneously.
  • Parents need to talk to their children about issues, help them to recognize verbal and physical abuse, act as good role models, and encourage positive risk-taking behavior.