A Longitudinal Study on Transactional Relations between Parental Marital Distress and Adolescent Emotional Adjustment
VanderValk, Inge, de Goede, Martijn, Spruijt, Ed, Meeus, Wim, Adolescence
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. Studies consistently report a curvilinear pattern over the family life course, with marital satisfaction at its lowest during children's adolescent years (e.g., Anderson, Russell, & Schumm, 1983). Thurnher (1976) found that adolescent children were the most often reported source of interparental disagreement, and many parents experience their children's adolescence as the most difficult period of parenting (Dekovic, Groenendaal, & Gerrits, 1996). Steinberg and Silverberg (1987) found that a substantial number of parents reported difficulties in adjusting to the adolescent's striving for individuation and autonomy, and related this to the often reported decline in marital happiness during children's adolescence.
A possible mechanism by which child adjustment affects the parental marriage is through deteriorated parent-child relations. That is, just like marital distress can spill over into the parenting and parent-child systems, thereby affecting child adjustment, the reverse is also possible. Additionally, according to a social-selection hypothesis, emotional problems such as depression play a role in the creation of interpersonal stress (e.g., Kim, Conger, Elder, & Lorenz, 2003). Thus, emotionally maladjusted adolescents may provoke stress in family relationships.
Research findings concerning gender differences in the impact of the parental marriage on children are inconclusive (Davies & Lindsay, 2001). Based on some reviews in this field (e.g., Cummings & Davies, 2002; Snyder, 1998), there are indications that boys may typically react to parental marital distress by externalizing problems and girls may react by internalizing problems. Further, as described by Davies and Windle (1997), boys may be more vulnerable to family risk factors than are girls during childhood, whereas girls may be more at risk from family problems during adolescence. Various studies have reported that adolescent girls are more susceptible to relational problems as a result of their greater social sensitivity, as manifested by increased emotional problems (Crawford et al., 2001; Davies & Windle, 1997; Ge et al., 1995; VanderValk, Spruijt, DeGoede, Meeus, & Maas, 2004). Additionally, girls are more empathic than boys (Brody, 1996), which may explain their greater sensitivity to the quality of the interparental relationship. For instance, adolescent girls have been found to be more accurate perceivers of marital conflict (Harold & Conger, 1997).
Pertaining to the reverse effect of children on marriage, no studies could be found that consider gender differences. However, the fact that adolescent girls are more oriented toward care and more likely to become involved in the problems of others (Davies & Lindsay, 2001) may result in girls having a larger impact on the parental marriage than do boys. Furthermore, girls' greater relational orientation is possibly reciprocal, in that relationships may also be more subjugated by the emotional adjustment of girls.
Research findings on the impact of the parental marriage on adolescent adjustment are not consistent (Buehler, Anthony, Krishnakumar, & Stone, 1997). Children from different age groups may be affected by marital discord on different forms of adjustment (Cummings & Davies, 2002). Young children may be more prone to react to marital distress by externalizing difficulties, whereas adolescents may increasingly react by internalizing symptoms. In adolescence, the effects of the parental marriage on emotional adjustment probably differ for early as compared to late adolescents. Stronger effects of parental marital quality may be expected for late adolescents and young adults as a result of their increased involvement in intimate relationships. When young people are confronted with issues of mature intimate relationships, the quality of the interparental relationship becomes more salient to them. Further, older adolescents--as a result of their increased maturity--are more likely to be drawn into parental conflicts (e.g., Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991). Finally, recollection of earlier experiences with the parental marriage may appear in late adolescence and early adulthood in the form of a sleeper effect. Such an effect has also been found to play a role in adjustment problems of children of divorce (e.g., Hetherington, 1993; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000). A developmental increase in the …
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Publication information: Article title: A Longitudinal Study on Transactional Relations between Parental Marital Distress and Adolescent Emotional Adjustment. Contributors: VanderValk, Inge - Author, de Goede, Martijn - Author, Spruijt, Ed - Author, Meeus, Wim - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 42. Issue: 165 Publication date: Spring 2007. Page number: 115+. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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