It takes just a moment to shatter a life. Violence against youths has far-reaching implications, even affecting their ability to form romantic relationships for years to come.
That’s the takeaway of new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which highlights the damaging consequences of street violence on teenagers’ experience with romantic relationships, and that those effects are varied, depending on how old they are when they experience such violence.
Led by Tara Warner, assistant professor of sociology at Nebraska, and co-authored by fellow Nebraska sociologist David Warner and Danielle Kuhl of Bowling Green State University, the forthcoming research in the American Sociological Review found that the timing of violent victimization has a big impact on if and when victims begin dating, and how quickly those relationships become serious.
The findings could help in counseling victims of violence. Counselors know it’s a problem when they see emotionally withdrawn teens, but might not recognize early teen dating as problematic, because dating is a normal behavior.
By examining a survey of 8,738 youths first interviewed in seventh through 12th grades, the researchers found that 17 percent had experienced some form of street violence as adolescents, from being jumped to being stabbed or shot. They found that those who had been victimized before 14 were about 44 percent less likely to date as a teenager, a tendency that persisted throughout their young adult years.
But if the trauma took place at 14 or later, the victims started dating almost a full year earlier than their peers. They also got more serious much faster – they either got married or started living together with a significant other about eight months earlier than average.
Why? Such relationships may be a coping mechanism, said Tara Warner, assistant professor of sociology at Nebraska. But because it’s not developmentally appropriate for younger victims of violence to date, they are more likely to withdraw and become emotionally isolated instead.
“Dating is a standard part of adolescence during the transition to high school,” she said. “It’s positively valued by their peers, and it can be a source of support, trust and stability. We also speculate that it could be useful for transforming identity, moving from an identity of victim to someone’s partner.”
But, dating and cohabiting can have a dark side if approached too early, as past research has shown.
“We’ve shown that youth who start living with a partner before the age of 21 are at an increased risk for intimate partner violence, which means the victim could be revictimized,” David Warner, associate professor of sociology, said. “Other research has suggested these earlier relationships have higher rates of divorce, are lower quality and can lead to substance abuse and depression.”
Although adolescents are the age group most at risk of violent victimization, this study is the first to examine its effects on a normal rite of passage such as dating.
Counselors, parents and teachers who are helping victims of violence should be wary of overinvestment in dating relationships, and make sure the teen is emotionally equipped to handle the relationship and the choices that come with it.
“Teens might not be mature enough yet, but as victims, they may be propelled to seek out intimate relationships earlier as a means of coping,” Tara Warner said. “The relationship could become more serious more quickly than what they’re ready for and it could lead to things that they’re not ready to deal with.”