Rowan University Psychologist Awarded $443K Grant to Help Teen Moms Avoid Dating Violence

Teen dating violence is a serious threat to American youth. Almost 1.5 million high school students report experiencing some sort of violence or physical abuse from a dating partner. The statistics are higher for girls. Nearly 1 in 3 female teens will report some form of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner in their lifetimes.

This type of violence can have drastic consequences. Teens that experience it are more likely to self-harm, engage in risky behavior, and try drugs and alcohol at an earlier age. Not surprisingly, teen moms are highly susceptible to violence from their partners before, during, and after their pregnancies.

Teen Mom Dating Violence

A recent study conducted by the University of Texas found that teen moms were at a higher risk of being abused by their partners. The research focused on 570 teen moms who were an average age of 16.8 years. The ethnicity of the participants was close to equal between Caucasian, black, and Mexican-American individuals. One-third of the teens reported to be married and only 15% were GED or high school graduates at the time of their child’s birth.

The researchers found that more than 40% of all these teen moms reported some form of abuse from the father of the child within the first two years after giving birth. The perpetrators were either current or former boyfriends and husbands. The majority of the abuse was reported to be in the first three months of the baby’s lives. The mothers described how they had been hit, slapped, kicked, or otherwise physically injured by their partner.

While the incidence of abuse was greater at the earlier stages after giving birth, the severity of the abuse appeared to raise with time. For example, only 40% of the participants rated the abuse as severe in the first three months. However, over 60% reported severe abuse when the baby was between the ages of 18-24 months old.

It should be noted that physical abuse did not always start after the baby was born. Several teen moms reported being abused before and during their pregnancy. Those that reported this had a higher risk of being abused after the baby was born.

The study summary ended with several future questions that should be looked at and addressed. For example, teen moms have a higher rate of having a second child soon after the first. Does this happen because the mothers are afraid of refusing sexual advances from their partners? Also, how should adults who work with teen moms be addressing violence issues and making sure that they are safe at home or with their partners?

The Rowan University Program

The startling statistics raised in the University of Texas study got the attention of several psychologists. One of them was Dr. Meredith Joppa, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rowan University in New Jersey. Her current and past research expertise focus on romantic relationships, adolescence and emerging adulthood, and teen dating violence and sexual risk prevention.

Dr. Joppa noted the poor outcomes for teen moms who suffered violence and abuse. She also observed how violent actions and behaviors have lasting effects on more than just the mothers. The children growing up in abusive environments are also negatively affected by witnessing such violence. This can turn into long-term negative mental health issues and repeated cycles of violence.

To address the problem, Dr. Joppa and her team created the Date SMART program. The program is currently the only large-scale system that was specifically created with the express purpose of studying and reducing teen violence. The program addresses three main core concerns that are linked to higher rates of violence. These are to teach young women to regulate emotional responses, decrease their depressive symptoms, and learn valuable new interpersonal skills.

Teen Mom Initiative

The Program has several initiatives including the Date SMART-Young Mothers Intervention. This initiative recently secured a $443K Grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health to help teen moms avoid dating violence. The Young Mothers Intervention recognizes that teen moms lack access to both preventative and behavioral health services.

Dr. Joppa also notes that teen moms are also significantly underrepresented in data. There are simply too few studies done on teen moms and violence to draw substantial conclusions on how to address the problem. The main problem? The teen moms who most need help are the ones who are the least likely to ask for it.

To combat these issues, Dr. Joppa and her team are currently conducting pilot studies to teach teen moms better skills to cope with raising a child and dating. They are also focusing on recognizing violence and how to stop the cycle of abuse. Surprisingly, recruitment for the programs does not appear to be an issue. The initial studies have shown that teen moms are receptive and engaged when asked to participate.

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