A Longitudinal Study on Transactional Relations between Parental Marital Distress and Adolescent Emotional Adjustment

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INTRODUCTION

Parents not only influence their children, but children also affect their parents. Although this so-called bidirectional point of view (e.g., Bell, 1968; Bell & Chapman, 1986) is widely acknowledged, most studies thusfar focus on the effects of parents on children (e.g., Dunn & Plomin, 1990). Studies on transactional relations between parents and adolescents are particularly lacking (Rueter & Conger, 1998). In the present longitudinal study, we examine whether marital distress of parents and the emotional adjustment of adolescents and young adults are transactionally related and whether this differs according to adolescent gender and age group.

Bidirectional Point of View

This study was based on a combination of the bidirectional point of view and family systems theory. The bidirectional point of view has been well described in the theoretical literature and is in accordance with other theories purporting that parents and children mutually influence each other and can consequently contribute to change in each others' development (e.g., Bell & Harper, 1977; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Peterson & Rollins, 1987).

Family systems theory regards the family as a system composed of the marital, parenting, parent-child, and sibling subsystems. Each subsystem influences, and is influenced by, the others (Minuchin, 1985). The family is thus considered as a complex, integrated whole, in which individual family members exert a continuous and reciprocal impact on each other (Cox & Paley, 1997). In their study on the effects of family relationships on adolescent adjustment, O'Connor, Hetherington, and Clingempeel (1997) describe how family systems theory qualifies and extends bidirectional models. Systems theory considers mutual influences within relationships, emphasizes contextual factors that modify these mutual influences, and underscores a developmental perspective.

In this study, we expect marital and child adjustment to be transactionally related. This is based on the bivariate viewpoint of reciprocal influences between parents and children, and on family systems theory of the interdependence between individuals and relationships. Further, this interdependence may be modified by such contextual factors as gender and may change over the family life course as a result of developmental changes.

Impact of Parental Marital Distress on Adolescent Adjustment

Research has consistently shown that marital and child adjustment regularly co-occur and it is broadly recognized that the quality of the interparental relationship is of great consequence for offspring development (Buehler et al., 1997; Cummings & Davies, 2002; Fincham, 1998). Marital conflict has been found to be predictive of both internalizing and externalizing problem behavior of children (see reviews in Emery, 1982; Grych & Fincham, 1990). Further, in line with a family systems view, distress in the marital dyad is likely to extend to other parts of the family system. These related family stressors include deteriorated parent-child relations (e.g., Erel & Burman, 1995), impaired parenting and parental depression (Krishnakumar & Buehler, 2000). These indirect or associated stressors of marital discord are referred to as spillover effects: problems in the marital realm spill over into the parenting system, thus transferring to the parent-child system.

Conclusions about the causal relation between marital distress and child adjustment are limited, since most studies in this area are cross-sectional (Grych & Fincham, 2001).

Impact of Adolescent Adjustment on Parental Marital Distress

In contrast to the effect of the quality of the parental marriage on offspring adjustment, little is known about how offspring themselves may affect the interparental relationship (Cummings, Goeke-Moerey & Dukewich, 2001). Studies that did examine the influence of children on the parental marriage mainly concern differences in marital quality depending on children's age. …