York study finds a string of aggressive partners may be a peer problem

Teenagers are more likely to move from one dating relationship where there is aggression to another that is the same or worse if there is violence or delinquent behaviour among their peers, a study led by researchers at York University has found.

Published in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the study found that 13 per cent of 621 teenage participants had experienced aggression in two different relationships within a year – either as the perpetrator, the victim, or as both.

The study looked at students in Grades 9 through 12, in eight Canadian high schools. Nine types of dating aggression were examined, ranging from pushing the other person, to pulling his or her hair, to choking. In most cases, the incidents were not severe, and in contrast to the traditional view of domestic violence, the aggression was reported equally between boys and girls.

Previous research has shown there is a connection between aggressive behaviour in peer groups and within couples who are in that peer group. However, the York-led study examined recurrent patterns – in other words, why some adolescents who disengage from one violent relationship find themselves repeating the same behaviours with new partners.

"Teens who are part of a couple and consider this type of dating aggression acceptable are at greater risk of getting into another aggressive relationship if they are surrounded by friends who are aggressive," said York Professor Jennifer Connolly (left). "These young people may pair up with aggressive partners because they are in an aggressive peer group, and hostile talk about partners may reinforce the aggression."

Without significant intervention efforts, it is likely that these youth will continue along this problem trajectory, said Connolly, so it is worthwhile intervening with adolescents to try to change their attitudes about the acceptability of aggression with a romantic partner and teach them non-aggressive ways of responding to conflict. Since adolescents are much more willing to listen to their peers than to adults, interventions that take advantage of this bias are most likely to be effective. Peer-led anti-violence projects, based on the idea of engaging youth in creating healthy and non-violent relationships, are one important direction in changing youth aggression.

Connolly, a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health and head of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, undertook the research with York graduate student Trish Williams, who is now a post-doctoral Fellow at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, along with York Professor Debra Pepler, Queen’s University Professor Wendy Craig and University of Montreal Professor Lisa Laporte.