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Child Abuse Negl. 2009 Jul;33(7):451-60. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.11.005. Epub 2009 Jul 8.

Experiences of psychological and physical aggression in adolescent romantic relationships: links to psychological distress.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75275-0442, USA.



This research examined links between adolescents' experiences of psychological and physical relationship aggression and their psychological distress. Experiences of psychological and physical aggression were expected to correlate positively with symptoms of psychological distress, but experiences of psychological aggression were expected to partially account for the association between experiences of physical aggression and psychological distress. In addition, psychological aggression was hypothesized to be perceived as more unpleasant and less playful than physical aggression.


Participants were 125 high school students. Relationship aggression was assessed over an 8-week period using two methods: (1) a retrospective method based on a single assessment at the end of the 8-week period, and (2) a cumulative method based on multiple assessments conducted during the 8-week period. Adolescents' appraisals of the aggression were also measured, as were their reports of symptoms of psychological distress.


Adolescents' experiences of psychological and physical relationship aggression correlated positively, but inconsistently, with their symptoms of psychological distress. In analyses considering both forms of aggression simultaneously, psychological aggression was related to adolescents' distress, but physical aggression was not. This finding emerged across both methods of assessing for relationship aggression. Psychological aggression was more likely than physical aggression to be rated as unpleasant, and less likely to be attributed to the partner "playing around."


The study of adolescent relationship aggression will benefit by expanding the focus of aggression to include psychological aggression as well as physical aggression, and by examining adolescents' appraisals of the aggression they experience.


The findings highlight the importance of a broad view of aggression in adolescent relationships. Psychological aggression appears to be at least as important to adolescent well-being as physical aggression in dating relationships. In addition, it may be useful to consider how adolescents' interpret the intent of the aggression that they experience.

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