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UTSA professor explores dating violence among Mexican American teens

Heidi A. Rueda

Heidi A. Rueda

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(Nov. 11, 2014) -- An assistant professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is researching dating relationships of Mexican American teenagers to better understand how to curb potential violence.

In a recent paper published in Psychology of Violence, Heidi Adams Rueda in the UTSA Department of Social Work and Lela Rankin Williams from Arizona State University (ASU), examined the correlates of dating violence among teenagers of Mexican heritage living in the southwestern United States.

According to 2013 data from the national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), more than 73 percent of high school students had dated in the preceding year; of those youth, more than 10 percent reported being victimized by physical and sexual dating violence. The YRBSS notes that both statistics are significantly higher among Hispanic adolescents than their white, non-Hispanic peers.

Rueda and Williams conducted 20 focus groups comprised of Mexican American teenagers age 15-17. The researchers identified key rationales for teen dating violence among this population. Jealousy was often the motivating factor that led to physically violent episodes.

The researchers found that the teenagers perceived jealousy as the primary source of argument, which catalyzed any subsequent physical violence experienced. Cheating was perceived as loosely as communicating with an opposite-sex peer and was used by some as a reason to check their partner's phone. In many of these relationships, aggression was an outlet to resolve angry feelings stemming from jealousy.

This effect, Rueda said, is compounded by findings regarding attitudes that some first-generation Mexican American youth are exposed to at home (paternalism, possessiveness and violent conflict strategies). Mexican American youth, she explained, also possess many strengths, however, including a strong emphasis on family values, religiosity and the evidenced ability to adapt to two cultures with norms for dating that are often in conflict.

"Adolescents feel very strongly, more strongly than people realize," said Rueda. "For some teens, the fear of a potential loss of a important relationship is a catalyst for abusive actions. When emotions run high, it's a way for one party, and more commonly both parties simultaneously, to try and resolve relationship conflict. If this behavior is modeled at home, then violence is more likely to occur."

According to Rueda and Williams, many states with high populations of Hispanic youth are not properly equipped to provide Hispanic teenagers at risk for teen dating violence with the education they need. Break the Cycle, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization working to provide comprehensive dating abuse prevention programs to youth, once awarded Texas a "C" grade in providing protection and education to teens in abusive relationships with a reevaluation scheduled for sometime this year.

"Our findings demonstrate the need to present Mexican American teens with culturally sensitive models of healthy relationships," said Rueda. "It's important to invest in this kind of education so that teens can have healthy relationships now and for the future. Our research points to the importance of talking to youth about their feelings of anger and jealousy. Through involving youth in learning non-violent ways to handle conflict, dating violence among teens can be significantly reduced."

Rueda received her Ph.D. in social work from Arizona State University (ASU). She also earned a Master of Social Work degree with a concentration in planning, administration and community practice from ASU. She earned her bachelor's degrees in psychology and Spanish from the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Learn more about Heidi A. Rueda.

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For more information, visit the UTSA Department of Social Work and UTSA College of Public Policy websites.

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