Exposure to Violence in Adolescence Linked to Intimate Partner Violence, Mental Distress Later in Life

Two people holding hands.

New Research from Elyse Thulin

PhD Student in Health Behavior and Health Education

People who experienced violence as children at home and in their community are at higher risk for violence with their partners later in life, new research shows. 

Four separate studies recently published by the University of Michigan School of Public Health look at intimate partner violence from different perspectives with two focusing on adolescent populations and two on adult populations. 

The researchers explored intimate partner violence at the individual level, but also looked at factors that influence the experience of violence at the community level both in adolescence and adulthood. The studies were conducted in Michigan.

The research found that electronic dating aggression such as electronic monitoring, pressuring a partner to take intimate photos and bullying, overlap with other well-known forms of adolescent dating violence including verbal, physical and sexual violence, and highlight the need for timely interventions, said first author Elyse Thulin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

The team also found evidence that exposure to community-level violence in adolescence is a substantial risk factor that predicts violence with intimate partners in adulthood. 

The most recent of the studies shows that individuals who are exposed to higher levels of violence in their community during adolescence are at a higher risk for intimate partner violence exposure 15 years later. 

The research team also found that the influence of exposure to violence on intimate partner violence in adulthood was mediated by mental distress in early adulthood. This is a notable finding, providing possible opportunities for intervention at adolescence and early adulthood to mitigate the risk of intimate partner violence in adulthood, Thulin said. 

"Dating violence is a prevalent problem in adolescence," she said. "One in four individuals who experience intimate partner violence will experience it before the age of 17. It begins early and it's a really important developmental time frame to really think about constructively for intervention work but also prevention work."

The studies show individuals who are exposed to high levels of violence in adolescence—a notable adolescent stressor—were consistently associated with mental distress in emerging adulthood. 

While previous research has shown that negative neighborhood factors predicted intimate partner violence, more positive perceptions of neighborhood are also associated with lower levels of  intimate partner violence when controlling for factors such as alcohol and substance abuse, neighborhood violence and economic need. 

Thulin said children and teens learn how to set boundaries and what to do when one doesn't feel safe either physically or emotionally from those surrounding them, which sets the tone for their own relationship as they become independent.

"These are interpersonal skills that we're not really taught in school. So we learn them from our families, from our communities, from what we're reading and what we're seeing on TV. What we're listening to on the radio," she said. "These experiences can influence people for a very long time.

"Once an individual has more of those personal experiences, they can pull from their own history to kind of decide what is OK within their relationships, what's expected and how to resolve challenges that arise. Adolescence, in particular, is a really important time to understand how these relationships are beginning so that these behaviors are not perpetuated."

Co-authors of the University of Michigan studies included Justin Heinze, Hsing-Fang Hsieh, Kathleen Howe, Alison Miller, Marc Zimmerman and Paul Fleming of the University of Michigan Public Health; Yasamin Kusunoki of the University of Michigan School of Nursing; Poco Kernsmith of Wayne State University; and Joanne Smith-Darden of Michigan State University. 

Abstract: Adolescent Exposure to Violence and Intimate-Partner Violence Mediated by Mental Distress (Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, January-February 2021)

Related research: Adolescent Risk of Dating Violence and Electronic Dating Abuse: A Latent Class Analysis (Journal of Youth and Adolescence, December 2020)

Adolescent Adverse Childhood Experiences and Risk of Adult Intimate Partner Violence (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2020) 

Perceived Neighborhood Characteristics and Experiences of Intimate Partner Violence: A Multilevel Analysis (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, February 2020)