Building healthier relationships for girls

The romantic entanglements of a 10-year-old might seem trite to some, but York University Psychology Professor Debra Pepler is all ears.

Pepler’s study, “Preventing Violence in the Lives of Girls and Women: a Focus on Relationships”, looks at girls’ early relationships, from childhood to adolescence, in order to determine how healthy behaviours are formed for later life, and how unhealthy patterns can be prevented.

Right: Debra Pepler

She will present her findings as part of the Violence, Gender and Health workshop, taking place today at the Keele campus. The workshop is presented by the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s Institute of Gender and Health.

“Aggression – whether experienced as victim or perpetrator – isn’t just a problem within the child,” says Pepler. “It’s a problem within relationships. We want to identify girls who are at risk at an early age, and set them on the right course towards healthy relationships, before these patterns of behaviour are established.”

The study examines girls from ages 10 to 18, and their interactions with family, friends and romantic partners. Girls who experience victimization or are aggressive within family and peer relationships are at risk for a complex range of health and safety problems as they move into adulthood. Pepler has found that approximately one in 10 students are victims of major physical aggression in their dating relationships.

Left: Pepler studied the early relationships of young girls to determine how healthy behaviours are formed and how unhealthy patterns can be prevented

“Unfortunately, you get into a situation where opposites do not attract,” says Pepler. “Girls who experience aggression at a very early age are much more likely to attract partners who mimic these characteristics.”

But the equation also works the other way. “Girls who are aggressive in dating relationships – and there are more than you would think – are also at a high risk for becoming victims themselves.”

The study has found that girls most likely to become entangled in abusive relationships are those already experiencing difficulties in dealings with family and friends. The prognosis for intervention – changing those troubled pathways – is best during transitional phases, such as a teenager’s move from elementary to high school.

Pepler emphasizes that the scope of the study is broad, and also looks at how boys interact with girls as an integral piece of the puzzle.

“For every girl we study, we also study a boy,” Pepler says. “Their development is equally important.”

The study is part of a collaborative “NET research” program, created to draw upon strengths in clinical-developmental and social psychology, social services, education, medicine and social policy, in order to promote effective strategies for violence prevention to practitioners, policy makers and the broader community.

The Violence, Gender and Health workshop will feature talks by researchers from universities including Simon Fraser, McMaster, Dalhousie and University of Victoria, as well as from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Following these talks, researchers, post-doctoral fellows and students will gather for interactive research sessions. The workshop will take place from 9am to 4:45pm in the Senate Chambers, room N940, Ross Building.