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David Baxter PhD

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Abuse rampant in teenage romances
Saturday, September 16, 2006
by Sarah Schmidt, CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - Half of teenage girls admit using abusive behaviour in their dating relationships, even more than teenage boys, a new Canadian study has found.

A team of researchers at the University of New Brunswick and Acadia University surveyed 633 boys and girls in Grades 7, 9 and 11 in New Brunswick about the use of psychologically, physically, and sexually abusive behaviours. The psychologists found fewer boys -- 43 per cent compared to 51 per cent of the girls -- reported having used at least one form of abuse toward a dating partner.

One in four girls (26 per cent) reported having used two or more forms of "dating violence" compared to one in five boys (19 per cent). And one-third of students in Grade 7 who had already starting dating reported using at least one form of aggressive behaviour, the survey also found.

The most common pattern for boys was the use of psychologically abusive behaviour. Survey examples included put-downs of their dating partners, insults, threats of physical violence, keeping them from their friends, or watching their every move.

For girls, there were two equally common patterns -- the use of psychologically abuse behaviour only, and the use of both psychologically and physically abusive behaviour. Examples of physical abuse listed in the survey included pushing, shoving and kicking.

"Even more alarming is that some youths at each grade level, albeit a small minority, reported using all three of these forms of violence. These results illustrate the scope of teenagers' perpetration of violence in their romantic relationships," the study says.

The findings will be reported in the forthcoming issue of Journal of Adolescence by UNB psychologists Heather Sears and Sandra Byers and Acadia psychologist Lisa Price.

In an interview, Sears, the lead author, said her accompanying study involving youth focus groups shows teens don't perceive their behaviour in dating relationships the same way adults do.

"They don't define it in the same way, and that's a problem," Sears said. "What counts for them as being violent or abusive exchanges, or what doesn't, is different. No wonder the interventions we do don't work."

For example, when a girl pushes or shoves her boyfriend, the parties shrug it off. "I don't want to minimize girls hitting boys. At the same time, youth don't see that so much as a big deal because, a) adults aren't quick to step in and put a stop to it, and b) boys aren't generally hurt or intimidated. They know they can put them in their place."

The researchers call for a closer examination of the use of psychological abuse in dating relationships and criticize studies that focus on physical and sexual violence because they "seriously underestimate youths' total experience of violence in their dating relationships."

"Girls' use of psychologically abusive behaviour may emerge as a response to conflict in light of changes in physical strength and social roles that occur with the onset of adolescence.

"In contrast, boys' use of this behaviour may reflect a perceived need for peer status and/or the loss of physically abusive behaviour as an acceptable option for establishing control. Clearly, this form of interaction between teenage dating partners requires extensive examination," the study states.

The good news, says Sears, is teens know they need help to understand what a healthy dating relationship should be like.

"The kids know that they don't have all the skills they need to develop and maintain healthy relationships, and they are asking for that. In the focus groups, they ask, `How do you know when it's abusive?' They really don't have good barometers for what it's supposed to be like."

The research was funded by grants from Health Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the UNB Faculty Research Fund.
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