Intimate Partner Violence: What We Tell Our Children Can Make a Difference

Sep 29, 2014, 9:45 AM, Posted by

Recently while watching ESPN with my two children, we saw nonstop coverage of the Ray Rice incident, including the video of Mr. Rice violently assaulting Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée. I was peppered with questions from my children. 

“Did he get arrested? Why did he do that? What did she do? Is that something they shouldn’t show on television because it’s private?”

The recurring images and my children’s questions were all the more jarring because I recently lost a sorority sister in a murder-suicide by her former husband. These experiences have served as an unfortunate but teachable moment for my daughter and son, and reinforced the importance of my life’s work—both for my children and for society as a whole. 

Our children must continuously hear the message that violence within relationships, whether platonic or romantic, is unacceptable. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is not a private matter but one that we all must confront directly.

IPV is widely recognized as a significant public health problem in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting lifetime prevalence estimates of physical violence by an intimate partner of 31.5 percent among women and 27.5 percent for men. This results in deleterious consequences to individuals, families and society in general. Despite growing evidence of the multiple impacts of IPV, sustained public outcry against this crisis is often limited to violence-against-women advocacy groups and a narrow pocket of supporters. Typically, there are upsurges of mobilization around the issue when highly publicized cases occur, such as the recent incidents of professional athletes physically and violently assaulting their partners.

Our society must not only move toward a zero-tolerance policy for physical, sexual and emotional violence against women, men and children, but also enforce it. However, ameliorating these forms of violence can only be achieved through shifts in policies and norms within our society and sustained investment in primary prevention. As a research psychologist at RTI International and a member of its Global Gender Research Center, I have had the privilege of collaborating on two comprehensive teen-dating violence (TDV) prevention initiatives focused on primary prevention: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Start Strong: Building Healthy Relationships©; and the CDC’s Dating Matters: Strategies to Promote Healthy Relationships™.

These initiatives emphasized the importance of TDV prevention by not only equipping middle school youth with the knowledge and skills to build and sustain healthy relationships through curricula and communications campaigns, but also engaging parents, near-peers, educators and community members, and informing TDV and TDV-related policies. These types of multilevel comprehensive approaches, and similar efforts with even younger children, are critical in ensuring that our children can build futures without violence.

We have to establish new norms through advocacy and policy change that dispel any tolerance or acceptance of intimate partner violence. This is a critical public health issue—one that is impacting far too many individuals and families every day. The heightened awareness around the harmful health impacts of cigarette smoking did not come to full fruition until increased taxes, restrictions on public smoking, and other policies and practices influenced knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about smoking behavior, resulting in change for many. My children are staunch opponents of smoking and, in fact, have become their grandfather’s constant reminder that smoking is not good for him and they do not want to lose him because of it. They and all other children should have the same norms, attitudes and beliefs around the lack of acceptance of intimate partner violence and the expectation of healthy relationships.

We are long overdue for the enactment and enforcement of laws, policies and practices that place intimate partner violence and its amelioration at the forefront of our minds all the time—and not just when it is a popular media story.


Afifi, T. O., MacMillan, H., Cox, B. J., Asmundson, G. J. G., Stein, M. B., & Sareen, J. (2009). Mental Health Correlates of Intimate Partner Violence in Marital Relationships in a Nationally Representative Sample of Males and Females. J Interpers Violence, 24(8), 1398-1417. doi: 10.1177/0886260508322192

Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Basile, K.C., Walters, M.L., Chen, J., and Merrick, M.T. (2014). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence victimizaion—National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011. Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 63(SSO8), 1-18.

Breiding, M. J., Black, M. C., & Ryan, G. W. (2008). Chronic Disease and Health Risk Behaviors Associated with Intimate Partner Violence—18 U.S. States/Territories, 2005. Annals of Epidemiology, 18(7), 538-544. doi:

Bonomi, A. E., Thompson, R. S., Anderson, M., Reid, R. J., Carrell, D., Dimer, J. A., & Rivara, F. P. (2006). Intimate Partner Violence and Women’s Physical, Mental, and Social Functioning. Am J Prev Med, 30(6), 458-466. doi:

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.