(Reuters Health) – Middle schools that offer a comprehensive dating violence prevention program in every grade may have fewer youth involved in abusive relationships, a U.S. study suggests.
The goal of the program, called “Dating Matters,” is to give young people, their families and their communities prevention strategies to help prevent teen dating violence. The program, available for free from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (bit.ly/2WNLxwD), focuses on teaching 11-to-14 year-olds healthy relationship skills before they start dating and on reducing behaviors that increase the risk for dating violence like substance abuse and sexual risk-taking.
Many prevention programs target older teens, and often involve high school students being lectured in health classes. For the current study, researchers randomly assigned students at 46 middle schools to participate in three years of dating violence prevention programs for teens, parents and teachers or to receive only standard prevention classes in eighth grade.
Compared to students in schools with just standard prevention, youth at schools that used the comprehensive Dating Matters program were 8.3% less likely to perpetrate teen violence, 9.8% less likely to be victims and 5.5% less likely to use negative conflict resolution strategies, the study found.
“This study shows that teaching young people the skills they need to engage in respectful, healthy relationships makes it less likely that they will perpetrate or be victims of dating violence,” said lead study author Phyllis Holditch Niolon of the CDC.
“These skills include conflict resolution, healthy communication, and social and emotional skills, in addition to recognizing characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships,” Niolon said by email. “Dating Matters also teaches parents the importance of being health and relationship educators for their kids, and starting conversations about healthy relationships before they start dating.”
Young people who participated in the Dating Matters program in the current study didn’t appear any less likely to engage in positive relationship behaviors than middle school students at schools without the program, researchers report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
One limitation of the study is that researchers relied on students to honestly report any experiences with teen dating violence, which may not provide a reliable picture, the researchers note.
Still, it’s clear that prevention takes more than a classroom lecture, said Dr. Elizabeth Miller of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“Young people live in social networks that are nested within schools and communities,” Miller, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “If we are to shift youth attitudes and behaviors related to teen dating violence, it is vital to work to change the environments in which youth are living.”
Dating Matters is unique in that it targets multiple risk and protective factors for teen dating violence, including engaging the important adults in the lives of youth like parents and teachers in prevention efforts, said Katie Edwards of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
“This is a novel and critical part of prevention since parents and teachers, along with peers, have significant influence on the behaviors in which youth engage,” Edwards, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
Starting early is key, said Emily Rothman, a public health researcher at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the study.
“A lifetime of emotional and physical pain, expensive medical treatment and counseling, and other problems that can result from being in a relationship with a controlling, abusive person can all be avoided if we start dating violence prevention work at least as early as sixth grade,” Rothman said by email. “We should invest in dating violence prevention when children are young because it will keep them safe and pay off many times over.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2JYdko5 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online May 22, 2019.