Recently released survey data suggests that a surprising number of children, aged 11-18, have experienced some form of abuse in dating relationships. The study assessed 1043 tweens (aged 11-14), 626 teens (aged 15-18) and 523 parents. The sample data was normalized across gender, age and ethnic group to reflect U.S. Census demographic quotas.

A note to readers: Although cumbersome, I have included not only the reported percentages, but the real numbers that those percentages describe, as well as the N (total number of subjects) associated with those percentages because, without a point of reference, statistics can be very misleading (e.g., 69% of children who have had sex by age 14 report enduring some form of abuse...scary...BUT the N=64, which is only 6% of the total sample. What this translates into is 64 out of 1043 kids report having had sex by age 14, and 42 of those 64 reported some form of abuse...that's 4% of the total sample...not 69%.)

The data indicate that the context of what tweens perceive to be a dating relationship occurs within a much earlier age frame than previously suspected. Nearly half (47%; s=490.21; N=1043) of respondents aged 11-14 reported having been in a dating situation, and 74% (s=771.82; N=1043) stated that dating relationships began at around age 14. (Note: The comparison data which allows the phrase "previously suspected" to be validated is not provided in the study.)

Of those included in the sample, 62% (s=646.66; N=1043) aged 11-14 report being verbally abused, 16% (s=166.88; N=1043) report being physically abused and 28% (s=140.56; N=502) report being sexually abused (Note: This reported 28% is 13.47% of the total sample).

Further, both parents and children agreed that sexual activity is a part of dating relationships, with 37% (s=385.91; N=1043) of the tweens surveyed and 31% (s=162.13; N=523) of parents acknowledging petting, 27% (s=281.61; N=1043) of tweens and 26% (s=135.98; N=523) of parents acknowledging oral sex and 28% of tweens (s=292.04; N=1043) and 26% (s=135.98; N=523) of parents acknowledging intercourse.

Interestingly, while sex was clearly considered to be a part of dating relationships by both parents and tweens, there was a (statistically) significant indication that parents did not consider it to be their child engaging in sexual behavior. Only a startling 7% (s=36.61; N=523) of parents acknowledged that their child had gone further than kissing.

Further, the data indicate that, statistically, (1) parents are significantly less likely to identify a transgender relationship as a dating relationship than tweens, (2) parents are significantly less likely to be aware of the degree and extent of their children's sexual activity and that of their peer group, (3) parents are largely unaware of the presence or degree of abuse in their children's dating relationships, and (4) parents are privy to and possess considerably less information about their children social lives than they tend to believe.

The survey data goes on to suggest that there is some correlation between early sexual activity and dating violence and abuse. Of all teens who had sex by age 14, 69% (s=44.16; N=64) report experiencing at least one form of abuse in at least one relationship. Within this sub-sample, 34% (s=21.76; N=64) report the abuse to be physical in nature.

Of teens who had sex by 15 or 16, 20% (s=25.20; N=126) report experiences of physical abuse, while teens who became sexually active after age 17 report instances of physical abuse to be a considerably lower 9% (s=6.84; N=76).

The study also contends that instances of verbal, emotional, social and sexual abuse are commensurate with those of physical abuse within this age framework, but no hard data is provided.

While survey data must always be regarded as only a snapshot and a detail within a larger picture, this data would appear to suggest that there is a trend toward two things in the pre-adolescent and adolescent sub-culture: entrance into what are perceived to be dating relationships by children at an earlier age, and a demonstrable element of abuse within those relationships.

Further, there is some suggestion that the earlier a child engages in sexual activity, the more likely they are to confront an abusive situation.

Finally, there is a clear indication that parents are both unaware of the nature of their children's social and sexual relationships, and are also unwilling to confront those relationships in a positive and/or productive fashion.

The outcomes of this survey are clearly provocative. The manner in which the data is presented is a bit troublesome (words like startling, alarming, disturbing), as it colors the receipt of the factual data by the reader and also demonstrates a clear agenda and position on the part of the presenters. In addition, a major element of missing data is that on homosexual, bi-sexual and poly-sexual relationships that are prevalent in pre-adolescent and adolescent culture.

That said, the most significant conclusion to be drawn from this survey report, beyond the obvious, is that parents and educational entities, as well as legislators by association, need to be more proactive in shaping the behaviors and social attitudes of children. That an ethic of abuse has bled into the romantic relationships of children suggests that the culture of bullying has been transformed from a social problem into a social given.

Character education is no longer just a good idea, but a necessity. Sex education needs to come out of the closet and no longer be just a module in 9th grade health class. It must be a curricular imperative that starts in middle school (or even earlier) and follows through 12th grade, speaking to not only traditional, but non-traditional relationships, and including social and emotional intelligence education components addressing how exactly to be in a relationship.

As the responsible stewards of a conscious society we need to get our Puritanical heads out of the sand, drop the dance of denial and own up to the fact that our kids are having sex and hitting each other.

We can't change youth culture, it has too much momentum. It is what it is and we have no control over its direction or its comportment. Millenials are a wholly different breed than Gen-Xers, Gen-Yers and Gen-Nexters - they are jacked-in, they are hyper-privileged, and they are older than their years - and, like all kids, they are clueless just like we were. What we can do is interject ourselves into that culture in a positive and productive way.

My girlfriend taught me that food continues to cook once it's taken off the heat or removed from the oven. Think of your kid like a bunt cake - just because s/he's out of the oven doesn't mean you're not still responsible for how s/he comes out in the end. Teach your children well, people...they are your only true legacy to humanity - yours and theirs.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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