Violence and Victims, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2001
© 2001 Springer Publishing Company
High School Students' Responses to Dating
Jennifer M. Watson, MS
Michele Cascardi, PhD
Sarah Avery-Leaf, PhD
Dating Violence Prevention Project, Inc.
Glen Ridge, NJ and Durham. NH
K. Daniel O'Leary, PhD
Department of Psychology
State University at Stony Brook
The purpose of this study was to identify high school students' actions in response to
physical aggression in their dating relationships. The association of these actions with
race/ethnicity and gender was also examined. From a sample of high school students
(AT = 476), a subsample who reported that they had experienced at least one episode of
being victimized by physical aggression in a dating relationship (n = 183), served as the
sample of interest. On average, students engaged in two help-seeking actions, with
females reporting more actions than males. Overall, the most common responses to phys-
ical aggression in a dating relationship were aggressive action (e.g., fight back), infor-
mal help seeking, threatened or actual breakup, and doing nothing (males) or crying
(females). Females were more likely to fight back than were males. Race was largely
unrelated to students' actions. Intervention opportunities and areas for future research
Estimates of dating violence (i.e., physical aggression in a dating relationship) among high
school students range from 9% to 46% (Henton, Gate, Koval, Lloyd, & Christopher, 1983;
Molidor & Tolman, 1998; O'Keefe, Brockopp, & Chew, 1986; O'Keefe & Treister, 1998;
Reuterman & Burcky, 1989). The large range is due, in part, to varying methods of assess-
ment; more objective and behavioral self-report measures of physical aggression (push,
grab, shove) such as the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) tend to yield higher estimates than
single global subjective measures (e.g., "Have you ever been abused by a dating part-
ner?"). While dating aggression is clearly a significant problem, little is known about ado-
lescents' responses to this behavior. A commonly studied response to dating aggression is
relationship breakup. Research has shown that between 45% to 60% of students remain
with an abusive partner (Sugarman & Hotaling, 1989). However, breakup is one of many
actions students may take in response to physical aggression in a dating relationship. The
purpose of this study was to identify high school students' actions in response to physical
aggression by their dating partners.
340 J. M. Watson et al.
The adolescent help-seeking literature regarding diverse problems of adolescence pro-
vides a useful framework for generating expectations about how adolescents are likely to
respond to dating violence. This research has targeted adolescent help-seeking for emo-
tional and behavioral difficulties (e.g., Dubow, Lovko, & Kausch, 1990; Offer, Howard,
Schonert, & Ostrov, 1991; Schonert-Reichl & Muller, 1996; Windle, Miller-Tutzauer, Barnes,
& Welte, 1991; Wintre, Hicks, McVey & Fox, 1988). Typically, formal (e.g., visit mental
health professional, call hotline) and informal (e.g., talk to friends, family) help-seeking
efforts are distinguished, and adolescent's preference for, or use of either, shape investiga-
tors' queries (e.g., Dubow et al., 1990). In general, research demonstrates that adolescents
rarely seek help from formal sources and prefer to seek help from family and friends (Dubow
et al., 1990; Offer et al., 1991). In addition, a great number do not seek any help from out-
side sources (Dubow et al., 1990; Offer & Schonert-Reichl, 1992; Seiffge-Krenke, 1989).
Demographic factors such as age, gender, and race/ethnicity relate to adolescents' help-
seeking behavior. With regard to age, researchers postulate that adolescents change their
help-seeking behavior throughout adolescence, moving from relying solely on friends in
early adolescence, to relying on both peers and parents in late adolescence. This shift can
be understood from a developmental perspective in that a major developmental goal of early
adolescence is independence from the "family or origin" while a major developmental goal
of late adolescents is to maintain both autonomy and closeness with the "family of origin"
(Sullivan & Sullivan, 1980). Overall, adolescent females report more help-seeking than
males, typically with greater use of friends and professionals (Berndt, 1982; Dubow et al.,
1990). This finding could be due in part to a tendency for females to self-disclose more
readily than males (Dubow et al., 1990). Some data show that African Americans are less
likely to use formal help agents than Caucasians, and are more likely to access parents and
extended family for assistance (Mata & Castillo, 1986; Windle et al., 1991). We were inter-
ested in exploring whether the findings extend to problems in dating relationships, specif-
ically, in what ways teens respond to physical aggression by their dating partners.
Recent research suggests that help-seeking also varies by problem type (Windle et al.,
1991; Wintre et al., 1988). For example, adolescents with substance abuse problems are less
likely to turn to key figures in their social network (such as friends and family), and less likely
to seek help for substance abuse problems than other types of problems (Mata & Castillo,
1986). This lower rate of help-seeking among adolescents with substance abuse problems
may be due to social stigma, perceived loss of social status, or denial of the problem.
Due to the stigma attached to dating violence, we expected adolescents' reports of help-
seeking would mirror findings in the substance abuse domain, that is, they would engage in
less active help-seeking. Therefore, the distinction between informal and formal help-seek-
ing may not capture the array of responses adolescents may have to dating aggression. Further,
the focus of help-seeking on constructive responses may obscure important actions that ado-
lescents take in response to dating aggression. In order to elaborate our understanding of stu-
dents' responses to dating aggression, we broadened the conceptualization of help-seeking
to include a variety of actions students may take. Among the actions we included were those
which could be potentially helpful according to the traditional help-seeking literature (i.e.,
seeking guidance from family or friends or professional advice) as well as those that could
be constructive vis-a-vis the relationship, such as breaking up. We also added two additional
categories to capture a fuller array of actions such as potentially destructive responses (e.g.,
fighting back) or passive responses (e.g., doing nothing) to dating aggression.
The primary purpose of this study was to examine adolescents' responses and reactions
to physical aggression by a current or recent dating partner. Specifically, we focused on the
quantity of responses (i.e., number of actions) students had to dating aggression as well as
Responses to Dating Aggression 341
the quality of the responses (i.e., type of action taken). Secondary aims were to examine
gender and race/ethnic differences in the quantity and quality of students' actions. Females
were expected to engage in more actions in response to dating aggression than males. African
Americans were expected to engage in fewer actions in response to dating aggression than
Females were expected to report more formal and informal help-seeking than males.
African Americans are expected to seek more informal help (parents, kin) and less formal
help than Caucasians. Lastly, the differences between actual help-seeking and hypotheti-
cal/future predictions about help-seeking were examined to assess how physical aggres-
sion in a relationship affected future predictions of help-seeking behavior.
Participants were 476 New York high school students, 266 males and 209 females, with a
mean age of 16.63 years (SD = .85). The high school was located in a large, metropolitan
area on Long Island. All students were from the same community which had a predomi-
nantly lower socioeconomic status (64.1% have a high school diploma or less, per-capita
annual income was $13,363) and was ethnically diverse (52% Caucasian, 10% African
American, 35% Hispanic, and 2.3% other racial category [U. S. Census, 1990]).
In our sample 43% were Hispanic, 31.5% were Caucasian, 15.8% were African American,
1.1% were Asian, 6.1% indicated other, and 2.1% did not report race identity. Only those
of Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic racial groups were included (n = 432;
90.8% of the total sample) as the number of students in other race groups were too small
for statistical analyses. Ninety-three percent of these participants (n - 401) reported at least
one past dating relationship and 57.4% (n = 248) of these reported that they were in a cur-
rent dating relationship. In order to capture dating relationships as high school students con-
ceptualize them, no explicit definition of dating relationship was given and students were
left to utilize their own personal definition of what constituted a "dating relationship." To
clarify, the sample used in the present study consisted of those students who were Caucasian,
African American, or Hispanic and reported at least one past dating relationship (n = 401).
All students were enrolled in mandatory health education during the Fall 1992 or Spring
1993 semesters, and were participants in a longitudinal study to evaluate the efficacy of a
dating violence prevention program. Participation in the larger study was voluntary and
passive parental consent was obtained.l Data reported herein were collected during the
first wave of data collection, before the dating violence prevention program was intro-
duced to the students.
Modified Conflict Tactics Scale. The Modified Conflict Tactics Scale (MCTS), a mod-
ified version of the CTS (Straus, 1979) developed by Neidig (personal communication,
1990) is a 19-item instrument measuring an individual's means of resolving conflict dur-
ing the course of a disagreement with his/her partner. Participants respond on a 6-point scale
(1 = never to 6 = more than 20 times) and completed each question twice: once for tactics
they have used and once for tactics their partners have used. The MCTS differs from the
CTS in that one item was added: "Have you physically restrained your partner?" In adult
samples, the MCTS has shown comparable results to the CTS in terms of factor structure
342 J. M. Watson et al
and validity (Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994). Caulfield and Riggs (1992) established the
validity and reliability of the CTS in a college student sample. The CTS is reported to have
a low refusal and antagonism rate and to have a stable factor structure (Barling, O'Leary,
Jouriles, Vivian, & MacEwen, 1987).
Students indicated if the relationship about which they responded on the CTS was cur-
rent or recent (i.e., recently ended but not current). Given the instability and varying dura-
tion of dating relationships (e.g., many last less than the 12-month criterion commonly
applied to the CTS), two modifications were made to the CTS assessment time frame.
First, those in current relationships rated each behavior over the entire length of their rela-
tionship. Second, students not in a current relationship reported on the entire duration of
their most recent relationship. For purposes of analysis, students were classified as having
experienced physical aggression, or not (using Straus's  scoring conventions; items
11 [throwing something], 12 [tried to physically restrain], 13 [pushed, grabbed, shoved],
14 [slapped], 15 [kicked, bit, hit], 16 [choked], 17 [beaten up], and 18 [threatened with knife
Actions in Response to Aggression. Students who endorsed any of the physical aggres-
sion items on the MCTS also completed two checklists of 15 possible actions they may
have taken in response to dating aggression.2 The checklists were the final measures in a
series of instruments on a 40-minute survey that was completed during one class period.
Items on the checklist were derived from authors' experiences in work with adolescents
who report physical aggression in dating relationships. First, students checked as many
actions as they had actually taken in their aggressive relationship. Then, they indicated
which actions they would take (sometime in the future) if there was aggression in their rela-
tionship (scores range from 0 to 15). Items were organized into five rationally derived cat-
egories: Aggressive Response (fought back, sought revenge, threatened violence); Threatened
or Actual Breakup (threatened to break up, broke up); Informal help-seeking (talked to
friends, family, partner, teacher, clergy); Formal Help-Seeking (called hotline, called police,
gone to court); and Passive or No Action (cried, did nothing). This measure was scored in
two ways: total number of responses to aggression and proportion of students who responded
to each item.
Of note, approximately one-third of students reporting any physical aggression (n = 65)
did not indicate that they had taken any action listed on the checklist. These students could
have failed to endorse any items for two main reasons:
1. they performed no actions on the checklist or
2. they did not complete this measure.
As this checklist was the last measure in the survey packet, it is possible that non-
responders were those unable to complete the full survey packet during a 40-minute class
period. Analyses were conducted to determine if students who endorsed actions on the
checklist differed systematically from those students who did not endorse any items on the
checklist. No significant racial or gender differences were found between responders and
non-responders. Therefore, it is unlikely that there is a systematic bias in how males and
females or members of different ethnic groups responded to this checklist, minimizing any
concern about the rate of non-responders.
Students completed the measures as part of a larger survey associated with the program
evaluation. Surveys were completed within a 40-minute class period and monitored by an
Responses to Dating Aggression 343
advanced graduate student and the health education teacher. Teachers facilitated distribu-
tion and collection of materials while the research assistant explained survey instructions
and answered student questions.
Rates of Physical Aggression and Victimization
Overall, 45.6% (n = 183) of students in a past or current relationship (n = 401) reported
experiencing physical aggression by a current or recent dating partner. However, it is impor-
tant to note that only 9% of the total sample (n = 34) reported exclusive victimization (i.e.,
they reported that they had experienced but not perpetrated aggression in their dating rela-
tionship). Therefore, our analyses focused on those who reported any (versus exclusive)
victimization as most also reported aggression against a dating partner. Reports of the rate
of physical victimization in dating relationships by race and gender are presented first to
help frame the actions in response to dating aggression findings. Cross-tabulations and chi-
square analyses (with Fisher's exact correction where appropriate) were used to evaluate
racial and gender differences in rates of victimization. First, race and gender were exam-
ined to determine if there were overall difference in rates of victimization. There was no
significant race by gender interaction in rates of victimization, y} (2, n = 393) = 1.36, p =
.51. However, there were significant racial differences in self-reported victimization, %2 (2,
n = 393) = 5.98, p = .05, with African Americans reporting the highest rate of victimiza-
tion (60%), followed by Caucasians (47%) and then Hispanics (41% ). Across race cate-
gories, females reported significantly higher rates of victimization than males, %2 (1, n =
393) = 15.01, p < .01; 57% vs. 37%, respectively.
Gender differences in the rates of victimization by a dating partner for each race were
also examined (see Table 1). The only racial group that showed significant gender differ-
ences was Hispanics. Hispanic females reported significantly higher rates of physical vic-
timization than Hispanic males (%2 (1, n = 393) = 12.64, p < .01; 58.6% vs. 32.2%, respectively).
Students'Actions in Response to Dating Aggression: Quantitative Analyses. Quantitative
analyses included examination of the number of total responses endorsed by students who
experienced victimization (n = 183).3 The number of tactics that were used ranged from 0
to 15. There was a trend for females to engage in more tactics than males, M = 2.68; SD =
2.99 versus M= 1.89; SD = 2.44; F(l, 181) = 3.66, p= .057. There was no significant race
difference (p = .375) in frequency of actions taken.
TABLE 1. MCTS Rates of Physical Victimization by Race and Gender
Males Females Males Females Males Females
(n = 26) (n = 36) (n= 121) (n = 70) (n = 68) (rc = 72)
Self-Reported Physical Victimization 518
Note. Participants were only included if they reported at least one dating experience (past or present).
Percentages in the same row that do not share subscripts differ at/>< .05.
% % % %
619 32^ 58&4L2 518
344 J. M. Watson et al.
Students'Actions in Response to Dating Aggression: Qualitative Analyses. Cross-tab-
ulations and z-tests for the difference between proportions (Fleiss, 1981) were used to
evaluate race and gender differences in types of actions taken by students who experienced
victimization (n = 183). To correct for Type 1 error inflation from multiple comparisons (n
= 20), a p value of less than .0025 was needed to achieve statistical significance. Analyses
were performed at the item level and at the category level. As described in the measures sec-
tion, items were divided into five rationally derived categories based on available literature:
Aggressive Response, Breakup/Threatened Breakup, Informal Help-Seeking, Formal Help-
Seeking, and Passive/No Action. In descending order, categories endorsed were: Informal
Help-Seeking (43%), Breakup/Threat of Breakup (37%), Aggressive Response (35%),
Passive/No Action (32%), and Formal Help-Seeking (8%). Rates are displayed in Table 2.
With regard to gender differences, females were significantly more likely than males to
report that they engaged in an aggressive response (e.g., fought back; 42% vs. 26%), cried
(36% vs. 7%), and talked to friends (35% to 14%; z = 3.34, p < .001; z = 5.55, p < .001,
and z = 3.44, p < .001, respectively). Males were more likely to do nothing than females (z
= 3.27, p < .001; 24% vs. 6%). There was also a trend for females to break up more than
males (z = 2.61, p = 004; 28% vs. 21%). Irrespective of gender there were no racial differ-
ences in frequency of responses.
We also examined gender differences by type of response to aggression by a partner for
each racial category. While there were no significant gender differences in frequency of
response for African Americans, there were significant gender differences for Hispanics
and Caucasians for two responses (crying and doing nothing). Hispanic females were sig-
nificantly more likely to cry than Hispanic males (z = 2.82, p = .002; 37% vs. 8% ) and
Hispanic males were significantly more likely to do nothing than Hispanic females (z =
2.90, p = .002; 23% vs. 0%). In addition, Caucasian females were more likely to cry than
Caucasian males (z = 3.20, p = .001; 42% vs. 4%).
Predicted Versus Actual Alternative Endorsed. Analyses were conducted to determine
if differences existed between what students actually did in response to a violent incident
compared to what they would do in response to a future incident. Students were significantly
more likely to predict that they would use formal help-seeking sources in the future (z =
3.40, p < .001; 20% vs. 8%), namely, calling the police (z = 2.85, p = .002; 15% vs. 6%).
The overall rate of physical victimization in dating relationships (46%) is consistent with
past research with high school students (Malik, Sorenson, & Aneshensel, 1997; O'Keefe,
1997; O'Keefe & Treister, 1998). Furthermore, few individuals in our sample reported
exclusive victimization, which is also consistent with past research that has shown that dat-
ing aggression is frequently bi-directional (Foshee, 1996; Gray & Foshee, 1997). In addi-
tion, there were significant ethnic/racial differences in rates of victimization with African
Americans reporting the highest rate of victimization (60%) and Caucasians and Hispanics
reporting similar rates of victimization (47% vs. 41%, respectively). This finding is par-
tially supported by past research that has shown that African Americans and Hispanics report
higher rates of partner violence than Caucasians (e.g., Casenave & Strauss, 1990).
Since over 40% of these students reported at least one experience of victimization in a
dating relationship, it is important to understand how adolescents respond to this behav-
ior. This study provides important descriptive information about adolescents' responses to
TABLE 2. Students'Actions in Response to Dating Aggression by Current or Past Dating Partner
Hispanic African American
(n = 14)
Threaten Break Up
Gone to Court
Passive No Action
Did Not Respond
Note. For gender and race comparisons percentages with different superscripts differ atp < .0025.
(n = 23)
(n = 39)
(n = 28)
rT — oj
346 J. M. Watson et al
physical aggression in dating relationships. As expected females engaged in more actions
in response to victimization than did males. In general, students were not likely to use for-
mal help resources nor access adult figures in their social networks (e.g., family, clergy,
teacher). In fact, the most frequently reported forms of action were aggressive response,
breakup, informal help-seeking (primarily from friends and partner), and passive/no action.
As expected, females were more likely than males to talk to friends or family. Surprisingly,
females also were more likely to fight back than males. Also unexpected was the finding
that African Americans did not seek less formal help than Caucasians. However, as previ-
ously noted, few students used formal resources.
The rate of breakup (36%) is consistent with prior research (Sugarman & Hotaling, 1989)
as well as with data on the overall rates of breakup of women in aggressive college dating
relationships (Avery-Leaf & O'Leary, 1997). Of interest is the trend for females to break
up more than males. This is encouraging as females also reported higher rates of victim-
ization. It appears that some females may recognize the destructive impact of physical
aggression in a dating relationship and elect to extricate themselves from these relation-
The distinction between the quantity and type of responses, and the inclusion of a wide
array of responses provides an important first step and useful information for the design
and delivery of services to adolescents as well as direction for future research. The high rate
of aggressive responses versus the low rate of formal help-seeking is of concern. This con-
cern is further highlighted by our finding that students reported they would be more likely
to engage in an aggressive response in the future than in the present. The tendency for
males to report "doing nothing," coupled with the high rate of aggressive responses, espe-
cially by females, indicates the need for school- and community-based interventions to help
students realize non-violent alternatives to physical aggression in dating relationships.
Out of two help-seeking categories (Formal/Informal) the items endorsed most often
were "talk to friends" and "talk to partner." This suggests the need for peer supports and
peer education to ensure that peers are communicating the appropriate message. Understanding
what peers communicate about physical aggression in dating relationships, and how to
educate peers should be an important focus of future research and intervention efforts.
The checklists of students' responses to aggression is a new measure that was developed
from the authors' past clinical experience with adolescents. While an effort was made to
include numerous responses that might be used by teenagers in response to dating violence
(e.g., inclusion of aggressive and potentially passive actions to the traditional help-seeking
categories) some typical responses made by student's to dating aggression may have been
overlooked. Given the early stage of development of this survey there is not yet any infor-
mation on reliability or validity. While this measure represents an important first step in
understanding students' reactions to dating aggression, future research should focus on the
validity (are items on checklist representative of actions taken in response to dating aggres-
sion) and reliability of the measure (whether students endorse the same items on the check-
list if completed a second time within a short time).
Finally, it is important to understand the impact of the specific help-seeking alternatives
to get a clear picture of how certain responses affect the quality of, or level of violence
within, the relationship. Future research should build upon this study and delineate students'
perceptions about the efficacy of their actions. In addition, prospective studies that distin-
guish the time relationship between actions taken and subsequent effects on the individual
and relationship are needed. Such work will help to focus resources effectively to reduce
the prevalence and emotional consequences of dating violence.
Responses to Dating Aggression 347
lrThere was no refusal by students or parents.
2The Actions in Response to Aggression measures were the last measure in the assess-
3No significant group differences were found in response to dating aggression between
students who reported being in a current dating relationship and those who were not in a
current relationship. Therefore, all analyses are reporting on a full sample of students who
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Offprints. Requests for offprints should be directed to Jennifer M. Watson, MS, 1180 Oakridge Dr.,
Memphis, TN 38111.
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