In this locally representative sample of public high school–attending youth, we found that past-month physical DV perpetration was common (18.7%), although less common than peer violence or sibling violence. We also found that the perpetration of physical DV only was relatively rare. Consistent with previous research, we found that physical DV perpetration was associated with peer violence perpetration9,10
and sibling violence perpetration.25
Also consistent with previous research, we found that the relationship between physical DV and peer violence perpetration was stronger for boys than for girls.10
Our study adds to the existing literature by analyzing a locally representative sample of public high school students and by quantifying the extent of the overlap between physical DV and other forms of interpersonal violence perpetration. Two strengths of our study are that we assessed past-month violence (rather than past-year or lifetime history), which may have limited recall bias, and that our measure of DV perpetration specified that playful aggression was not included.
Consistent with at least 16 previous studies, girls in this sample were more likely to report physical DV perpetration than boys.7,12,26-39
There are several possible explanations for this finding. First, it has been suggested that assessments of DV that do not solicit information about sexual violence may yield underestimates of perpetration by boys.40
Second, assessments that do not take into account the severity of the assault or injuries mischaracterize perpetration by obscuring sex-based severity differences.41,42
However, 2 studies have found nearly equivalent rates of injury reported by male and female victims of DV,7,27
and at least 3 studies have found that a greater proportion of girls than boys report perpetrating “severe” DV.7,29,43
Third, boys may be more likely to be dishonest about their DV perpetration on surveys, and girls may be more likely to overestimate their perpetration (eg, report playful hitting as abuse),44
although research suggests that adult men and women alike tend to underreport their own partner violence perpetration.45
This issue has yet to be investigated among adolescents. Fourth, female reports of violence against dating partners may reflect self-defensive actions, whereas male reports may not.46
Finally, girls in our sample may have reported their DV perpetration accurately. Because this study was not designed to explore the full situational context or consequences of DV perpetration, we were unable to determine why we found a higher perpetration rate among girls than boys.
Our hypothesis that physical DV perpetration would be associated with a range of other adolescent problem behaviors was supported by our results and is consistent with research on adult male batterers, which suggests that perpetration of physical violence against partners often co-occurs with other forms of interpersonal violence, criminality, and substance use.47-49
According to the problem-behavior theory of Jessor,50
certain adolescents are prone to engage in a variety of co-occurring behaviors such as underage alcohol use, cigarette smoking, marijuana use, precocious sexual activity, delinquency, and “acting out” against society because of underlying psychological and environmental factors. We propose that physical DV perpetration be added to the list of problem behaviors that co-occur among adolescents who may be characterized as being at high risk for other delinquent and unhealthful activities.
Longitudinal research could help to determine whether peer or sibling violence tends to precede physical DV perpetration. Consistent with social learning theory, which posits that children learn dysfunctional relationship behaviors from those close to them, children who use violence with siblings or peers may be on a trajectory toward partnership violence.51
Peer and sibling relationships may be training grounds for dating relationship behavior, which in turn may be a rehearsal for adult intimate partnership. If this hypothesis is supported, intervening with potentially violent adolescents at earlier stages in their development, when they first begin to show signs of aggression toward peers and siblings, may help to prevent partner violence perpetration later. Clinicians are encouraged to consider asking parents and pediatric patients about sibling and peer violence and DV and to discuss the importance of curbing abusive behavior.
Our results are limited by several factors. Our DV definition is limited to physical abuse. Had we included emotional abuse in our definition, more than half the sample would have been classified as perpetrators. Our definition permitted us to focus on those who had engaged in behavior with the potential to produce physical injury and to assess the overlap with comparable forms of physical aggression toward peers and siblings.
We did not assess the intent or motivation for perpetration or whether the violence was perpetrated in selfdefense. These contextual variables would be critically important if our goal was to attempt to explain the disparity in male and female perpetration rates. That type of inquiry was beyond the scope of this investigation. Also, data were self-reported, and there is a concern that violence perpetration and other socially undesirable behaviors might have been underreported. However, a comparison of our results with data from the YRBS from Boston high schools showed that self-reported rates of underage alcohol use, marijuana use, and suicidal ideation were nearly equivalent on the 2 surveys.52
Therefore, although underreporting may have been a factor, it does not appear to have affected our survey more than a comparable locally representative survey. Finally, our sample was restricted to those in school who reported dating in the past month and, for the overlap analysis, had siblings. Therefore, results may not be generalizable to students who are chronically truant, live in other cities, date less frequently or not at all, and have no siblings.
In conclusion, investigating and addressing the overlap among DV and peer and sibling violence may help reduce all these problem behaviors. It is imperative that researchers and health care practitioners who focus on DV consider the co-occurrence of physical DV perpetration and other adolescent problem behaviors, including violence against nonintimates. The discovery of root causes of these overlapping problems and methods for addressing them should be a priority for research and practice.