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Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children

Interparental Conflict—Effectson Children

Few parent-child relationships are conflict-free. In fact, some parents argue with heated emotion, but also clearly love each other. Thus, arguing may be an element of their communication style and may be productive for them. When interparental conflict is more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting, however, studies show that children are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties (Cummings and Davies 1994). In fact, interparental conflict is a better predictor of child adjustment problems than divorce or global indices of marital functioning (such as satisfaction). The extent to which marital conflict accounts for differences in psychological functioning in children has been estimated at 4 percent to 20 percent (Cummings and Davies 1994). When the family environment includes additional stressors such as poverty or violence, marital conflict can be expected to have even more significant effects (Cummings, Davies, and Campbell 2000).

Witnessing anger or conflict can be aversive for children and it is often associated with increased arousal, distress, and aggression as well as long-term adjustment difficulties including behavioral, emotional, social, and academic problems. Children from homes characterized by high conflict appear to be vulnerable to externalizing problems such as verbal and physical aggression, noncompliance, and delinquency, as well as internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety (Cummings and Davies 1994). Typically, however, stronger associations are found with externalizing rather than internalizing problems. Living with marital conflict also increases the risk of children displaying poor interpersonal skills and low levels of social competence (Cummings, Davies, and Campbell 2000).

Cultural differences exist with respect to what is normative in the expression and management of conflict. Thus, the meaning and impact of conflict may vary across families. The conditions under which children from different cultural or racial groups respond to marital conflict, as well as the various ways in which they respond, are areas of ongoing research. Some authors suggest that ethnic minority youth may be less vulnerable to the effect of conflict whereas others find similar results across different ethnic or racial groups (see McLoyd, Harper, and Copeland 2001). Research on culture, ethnicity, and race is limited, however, and is an area in need of further exploration.

Negative secondary affects of exposure to marital conflict have been shown for boys as well as girls, though the results are sometimes stronger for boys. Some studies find different patterns of reactivity between boys and girls, though it has been proposed that the variability in functioning within each gender is probably greater than the variability in functioning across the two sexes (see Davies and Lindsay 2001). Although no clear patterns have consistently emerged across studies, some interesting findings have begun to appear with respect to interactions between sex of parent and sex of child. There are some indications that marital conflict may be more likely to affect opposite-sex parent-child relationships than same-sex parent-child relationships (Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001).

Theoretical Models

Since 1990, there has been an increased emphasis in the literature on a search for mechanisms whereby marital processes might affect children. Three of the more compelling theoretical models are outlined below.

Cognitive-contextual theory. Rooted in information processing and stress and coping theories, John Grych and Frank Fincham (1990) developed the cognitive-contextual theory to help explain children's responses to interparental conflict. This model hypothesizes that children's appraisals mediate the impact of conflict and guide children's coping efforts (Grych and Cardoza-Fernandes 2001). Appraisals are defined as children's attempts to understand the conflict and its implications for themselves and are affected by the manner in which the conflict is expressed and contextual factors such as previous exposure to conflict and the quality of the parent-child relationships. Appraisals occur in a two-stage sequence. Primary processing refers to children's initial determination of the relevance and level of threat posed by the conflict. Secondary processing represents attempts to understand why the conflict has occurred. For example, children may look for someone to blame for the conflict and those that tend to blame themselves are at higher risk for depressive symptomatology and for becoming involved or triangulated into the conflict, a situation that is linked with adverse outcomes (Grych et al. 2000). Children's appraisals of their own coping efforts also are important to consider. According to this theory, the more confident children feel in their ability to cope with the conflict, the less likely they are to be threatened (Grych and Cardoza-Fernandes 2001).

Emotional security hypothesis. Patrick Davies and Mark Cummings (1994) proposed the emotional security hypothesis as a means of understanding the impact of marital conflict on children. This theoretical model focuses on the meaning children ascribe to marital conflict and the extent to which children perceive the conflict as threatening to their level of emotional security and the integrity of their family system. Children's emotional security is hypothesized to be a function of three regulatory systems, each of which may be disturbed by inter-parental conflict: emotion regulation (i.e., emotional reactivity and arousal), internal representations of family relationships (i.e., interpretations of the meaning and the potential consequences of the conflict for one's own well-being), and regulation of exposure to family affect (i.e., level of involvement in or withdrawal from conflict). There is some suggestion that children who engage in the conflict exhibit higher levels of difficulty than those who withdraw (Kerig 2001).

Parenting. In addition to the potential mediating effects of the cognitive processes as outlined in the cognitive-contextual theory and the emotional regulatory processes of the emotional security hypothesis, marital conflict has also been hypothesized to indirectly affect children through its impact on parenting. Studies have found marital conflict prior to the birth of a child predicts insecure attachment (Howes and Markman 1989) through its association with insensitive parenting (Owen and Cox 1997). Cross-sectional studies support the findings from longitudinal work, and marital conflict has been found to be associated with poorer quality parent-child relationships. Marital conflict has been shown to be associated with less emotionally available and less sensitive and responsive parenting as well as with more rejecting, hostile, and aggressive parenting (see Cox, Paley, and Harter 2001). Inconsistency in discipline, both within and across parents, has been linked with inter-parental conflict. A number of studies have found parents from more conflictual marriages to be more likely to triangulate (or involve) a child in the conflict (Kerig 1995; Lindahl, Clements, and Markman 1997), in essence forming a coalition with the child against the other parent.

Parenting findings are inconsistent with respect to sex and scarce with regard to ethnicity. Although Ross Parke and Barbara Tinsley (1987) and Susan Crockenberg and Susan Covey (1991) both concluded that marital functioning was more closely related to fathers' than mothers' parenting, Osnat Erel and Bonnie Burman (1995) did not find sex to moderate the association between quality of the marriage and parenting. In a later review focusing specifically on marital conflict, Mary Jo Coiro and Robert Emery (1998) found that the behavior of both parents was adversely affected, with slightly stronger effects found for fathering than mothering. Others have suggested that destructive levels of marital conflict are likely to overwhelm mothers as well as fathers and that the impact on parenting may be different for parents, but is likely to be present for both sexes (Crockenberg and Covey 1991). Limited cross-cultural data are available, but marital conflict has been associated with more critical and domineering parenting in Anglo- and African-American families and more disengagement in Hispanic families (Malik and Lindahl 2001; Shaw, Winslow, and Flanagan 1999).

Dimensions of Marital Conflict

Not all marital conflict is created equal with respect to the impact on children's adjustment. Conflict that is more frequent, intense, and of longer duration tends to be associated with more negative child outcomes. None of these factors act in isolation, however, and significant interdepedence is the norm rather than the exception. How each dimension might impact child development is likely related to other dimensions of the family context in which marital conflict is embedded.

Frequency and intensity. Numerous studies have shown a positive association between the frequency of parental arguments and level of maladjustment in children. Frequency has been linked to conduct problems, anger and insecurity, and academic difficulties (Cummings and Davies 1994). Although a majority of the studies in this area rely exclusively on self-report measures, the data are supported by results from studies utilizing laboratory and observational methodologies. Exposure to interadult anger under controlled, laboratory-based settings has been linked with increased distress and aggression in children. Parental monitoring of conflict at home also has been found to be associated with behavioral and emotional difficulties in children. In a series of studies, mothers were taught how to keep a daily diary of conflict events at home. Reports of more frequent interparental conflict were associated with greater distress, insecurity, and anger in children (Cummings and Davies 1994). Similarly, intensity of arguments has been shown to be linked to more anger, sadness, concern, and helplessness in children as well as to higher levels of behavior problems (Grych and Fincham 1993; Kerig 1996).

Content. The content or topic of parental disputes is another important domain of marital conflict. Conflict that is child-related has been associated with children's report of higher levels of shame, self-blame for the conflict, and fear of being drawn in to the conflict (Grych and Fincham 1993). Parental arguments or disagreements about childrearing policies and strategies have been shown to better predict child difficulties than other dimensions of marital dysfunction, including global marital distress and or nonchild-related fights ( Jouriles et al. 1991).

Resolution. In addition to how parents express their anger, the extent to which disagreements are resolved also matters. Resolution is probably best described as residing along a continuum, from no resolution to complete resolution (Cummings and Davies 1994). Higher degrees of resolution have been shown to be associated with reduced levels of distress in children. In fact, even partially resolved disputes are associated with reductions in children's anger as compared to unresolved fights. Laboratory studies have found children's responses to background anger (from unknown adults) that is followed by a complete resolution are comparable to reactions to entirely friendly interactions (see Cummings and Davies 1994).

Individual Protective Factors

Protective factors refer to the processes that reduce the probability of negative developmental outcomes occurring despite the presence of some psychosocial or biological hazard, or risk factor (Margolin, Oliver, and Medina 2001). The marital conflict literature has identified several individual child characteristics that serve not only to reduce a child's level of vulnerability to a stressor such as marital conflict, but in many cases to lead to adaptive outcomes. Some of these characteristics include cognitive appraisals, coping responses, intelligence, and emotional responsiveness. Children who report less self-blame, less threat, and more resolution have better outcomes, as do children who utilize emotion-focused (how to regulate stressful emotions within oneself), rather than problem-focused coping (trying to manage or alter the conflict) (Margolin, Oliver, and Medina 2001). More effective coping strategies appear, in particular, to reduce the likelihood of anxiety and depression symptoms (Kerig 2001). As is the case with other risk factors, children with higher levels of intelligence tend to fare better in the context of marital conflict than do children with lower levels of intelligence (Katz and Gottman 1997), though this may be due its association with the development of more effective coping resources. In addition, several lines of research suggest that focusing on children's emotional responses to conflict is important. How children evaluate the conflict, their emotional reaction to it, and how they regulate affect all play a role in determining children's adjustment (Crockenberg and Langrock 2001).


Although the magnitude of the relationship is not always large, an association between interparental conflict and child maladjustment is a robust finding in the literature. Exposure to conflict by parents, however, though it increases the probability of adjustment difficulties in children, appears to lead to serious maladaptive outcomes in a relatively small percentage of children (Fincham 1998). Goals of future research include developing a better understanding of how demographic variables such as sex and ethnicity/race and individual differences in cognition and emotion intersect with each other and with other elements of family functioning (e.g., parenting) in determining the impact of marital conflict on children.

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conduct Disorder; Coparenting; Depression: Children and Adolescents; Developmental Psychopathology; Divorce: Effects on Children; Interparental Violence—Effects on Children; Juvenile Delinquency; Marital Quality; Remarriage; Triangulation


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kristin lindahl

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