Researchers have long thought teen dating violence is related to family dysfunction during early childhood, but they haven’t had access to data to prove the association. Now University of Buffalo researchers believe they have proof.
The research team used information collected from teens who had been identified as children of fathers suffering from alcohol addiction at age one and followed through grade 12.
The youth were assessed using a variety of methods, including observations of parent-child interactions, parental questionnaires, and child interviews and questionnaires.
The researchers found that parental alcohol problems during infancy contributed to involvement in teenage dating violence later in life. They published their findings in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in August.
“Although teen dating violence is typically viewed as a problem related specifically to adolescent development, our findings indicate that the risk for aggressive behavior and involvement in dating violence are related to stressors experienced much earlier in life,” lead author Jennifer Livingston said in a press release.
The observations, questionnaires and interviews revealed how the teens had perpetrated violence or been victims of physical violence. Violence included engaging in threatening behavior, sexual violence, relational violence or emotional violence.
The researchers also collected information about the dynamics of the teens’ families. Those factors included:
The researchers analyzed the information and determined that marital conflict and low maternal warmth were associated with parents who exhibited alcohol problems, antisocial behavior and depressive symptoms during their children’s infancies.
Those conditions led children to exhibit externalizing behaviors, such as aggression, which increased their likelihood of being involved in teenage dating violence.
“It appears that family dynamics occurring in the preschool years and in middle childhood are critical in the development of aggression and dating violence in the teenage years,” Livingston said.
The authors suggested that children raised by parents with alcohol problems are more likely to be involved in dating violence during adolescence. They speculated that maternal warmth and sensitivity may protect children from exhibiting externalizing behavior, which may reduce the risk of involvement in dating violence.
Alcohol is associated with aggression and violence, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Violence includes a range of behaviors, including threats, property damage, physical harm and attempts to cause physical harm.
Alcohol increases the risk of these behaviors by affecting the way teens think, assess risks and process information. The substance also makes youth more likely to make impulsive or emotional decisions, according to the World Health Organization.
Even without exposure to alcohol, teens are more impulsive than adults. The developing brain has less self-control than the adult brain and is more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. That may be why teens who drink alcohol before age 13 are more likely to be involved in dating violence, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The warning signs for teen violence are usually apparent. The teen might exhibit:
Alcohol can make teens who are already predisposed to aggressive behavior act out. Once teens are exposed to violence, they may be more likely to use alcohol to cope with negative emotions. Increased alcohol use can put teens at an even higher risk of being involved in dating violence, according to the WHO.
The study by the University of Buffalo researchers highlighted the importance of early intervention programs for families with alcohol-related issues, Livingston said.
“Our research suggests the risk for violence can be lessened when parents are able to be more warm and sensitive in their interactions with their children during the toddler years,” Livingston said.
The WHO recommends the following programs to reduce youth violence:
Each program can improve the communication and relationships between children and their parents. Children raised by parents who exhibit a combination of control, discipline, warmth and responsiveness are less likely to use alcohol than children raised by parents who are too controlling or too lenient, according to the NIAA.
Alcohol-related education and prevention programs may reduce underage drinking, which reduces the risk of exposure to teen dating violence.
People may assume that children raised by parents with alcohol issues or poor parenting skills are more likely to have behavioral problems later in life. But there hasn’t been enough evidence to know which factors influence specific aspects of teen development. Now researchers are getting closer to proving those relationships.