Recently there was a brutal murder of a promising adolescent girl alleged to have been committed by her talented and promising former dating partner. The event sent a chill down many a spine. Two families that have had close ties have been devastated. The fact of interpersonal violence is a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. This is a good thing. I don’t think that we’d be better off if we suspected every adolescent to be at risk for perpetrating serious violence against his or her partner — nor, does the data support holding that belief. Murder is rare and almost impossible to predict because the most rational assumption is that it will not happen. That does not mean that we are helpless to take steps to reduce the chances even further.
The bottom line is that severe aggression is very rare. On average, serious episodes of violence occur around 13 – 14% of time in adolescent dating relationships. These include slapping, shoving, hitting, or being forced into sex according to a Center for Disease Control study (2000). Insults, intimidation, and threats were more common with about 35% of teens reporting this experience. The perpetrators of this aggression are both boys and girls. Really both sexes. Dating violence tends to show up around age 13, although many children report being involved with dating like behavior at age 11.
Prevention of violence or anything for that matter starts with identifying the risk factors. There are many factors and some of these are ones parents and care givers have more influence on than others. The ACT-Raising Safe Kids program takes a stand on one of the most important risks: child maltreatment. Children, who are the victims of abuse, are much more likely to be involved in violent relationships when they grow up because of disruptions in their social and emotional development. Traumatic stress symptoms and problems with empathy both play some role in increased risk for these kids as teenagers (published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2004 by Wolfe, Wekekle, Scott, Straatman, & Grasley).
Does that mean that children from families without violence are safe? Nope. We all have a role because much of our social learning experiences are with peers. Research shown that have high conflict relationships with friends and acquaintances and hostile behaviors increases risk as does involvement with a peers who are aggressive and delinquent. Moreover, holding attitudes that aggression is acceptable in conflictual situations plays an important role in increasing the likelihood that a teen will be in more than one violent dating relationship. See Williams, Connolly, Pepler, Craig, & Laporte in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2008).
What does this mean to us in our homes with our children? To me it means that every conflict that you have with anyone in your home or your community is an opportunity for teaching. We are modeling for our children every day how to show anger and how to manage it. We have a chance to show them how to see conflict from both sides and generate solutions that are responsive and respectful. We can help them to listen to each other by listening to them. There are some earlier posting on anger and conflict. It is really important to realize that lots of research is showing that children learn how to manage conflict at home with their siblings and their parents.
What can we do when our kids are teens and dating? We can listen to them. We can not offer advice but listen to their thinking. Let them describe what they are feeling without judgement. It is might increase the chances that they will let you know that they are not feeling safe. I say increase the chances because we also know that people often do not tell anyone when they have been hurt by someone else. Kids don’t report bullying and victims don’t report violence. They are afraid that no one can help or someone will make the situation worse or they are sure they can handle the situation. There are ways in which those attitudes make sense.
One last word, risk factors don’t explain everything. Murder is rare and usually the result of a whole bunch of unique factors that no one person could or should have anticipated. When a child dies, it is a tragic event.
Kelly M Champion