The Bridge between Sibling Violence and Dating Violence

December 22, 2010

A new study links sibling, peer, and dating violence, and stresses the need for providers and families to be aware of the issue.

Adolescents who hit or punch a sibling or peer are more likely to do the same to a dating partner than nonviolent teens, according to new findings published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The study, led by researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health, is the first to directly link sibling, peer, and dating physical violence in a representative sample of high school students, according to lead author Emily Rothman.

“If someone is hitting a sister or brother or getting into fistfights at school, the odds that they will use force with a dating or sexual partner are high, particularly if they are male,” she said in a press release. “Adults need to intervene early when they become aware that a teen is using violence.”

Rothman and colleagues surveyed 1,398 high school students at 22 public high schools in Boston between January and April 2008. Of those who were violent with siblings, 29% were also violent with dating partners, and of those who were violent with peers, 27% were also violent with dating partners.

The research team found that overall, 18.7% of students reported having used physical violence against a dating partner in the previous month. Specifically, 9.9% reported hitting, punching, kicking, or choking their partner; 17.6% pushed, shoved, or slapped him or her; and 42.8% swore, cursed at, or called their partner fat, ugly, stupid, or some other insult.

Experiencing physical dating abuse can result in injury, death, and mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts, substance use, disordered eating, and depression. As many as 10% of US high school students report having been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year, according to the authors.

One of the study’s most important lessons, Rothman says, is that “medical professionals, teachers, parents, and adolescents themselves need to be aware that a high percentage of high school students who use violence in one context are likely to use it in another.”

This study used data from the Boston Youth Survey, a locally representative sample of Boston high school students. Participants were asked not only about their use of physical violence against siblings, peers, and partners, but about emotional abuse as well, such as having yelling arguments or cursing at or insulting the other person. More than half reported using emotional abuse in the past month.

The authors urge health care providers and families to be aware that those who are violent with siblings and peers are at greater risk of being violent with a dating partner, and that the problem should be addressed before it becomes entrenched.

“Our study documents that physical violence against dating partners is widespread,” said co-author Renee Johnson. “This is a major public health problem that needs to be addressed.”

For more on this topic:

  • The Characteristics of Romantic Relationships Associated with Teen Dating Violence (Social Science Research)
  • Problematic Situations Associated with Dating Experiences and Relationships among Urban African American Adolescents (The Journal of Primary Prevention)
  • The Role of Electronic Communication Technology in Adolescent Dating Violence (Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing)