Academic journal article Family Relations

Child Presence during Psychologically Aggressive Interparental Conflict: Implications for Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior

Academic journal article Family Relations

Child Presence during Psychologically Aggressive Interparental Conflict: Implications for Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior

Article excerpt

Based on a sample of parents (N = 148) of 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 74, M = 5.76 years), this study adapted a widely used, self-report measure of couples' dyadic conflict behavior to include reports of couples' conflict behavior in the child's presence (triadic conflict) to examine their additive and interactive associations with child maladjustment. Significant interaction effects suggested that higher levels of triadic psychologically aggressive conflict were associated with higher levels of child externalizing (b =. 134, p = .024) and internalizing (b = .189, p < .001) problems, but only if levels of dyadic psychological aggression were average or higher. When levels of couples' dyadic psychological aggression were low, levels of child presence did not relate to child behavior. Predictors of triadic psychological aggression included parental involvement (b= .266, p = . 003), parent-child functioning (b =-.288, p = .042), and marital adjustment (b = -.346, p < .001).

Key Words: child presence during interparental conflict, externalizing behavior, internalizing behavior, marital adjustment, psychological aggression.

Research consistently has found significant negative associations between interparental conflict and child adjustment (Buehler et al., 1997; Cummings & Davies, 2010; Grych & Fincham, 2001 ). However, the mere presence of interparental disagreement in the home is not associated with negative outcomes per se; instead, it is the ways in which parents solve disagreements that have implications for child adjustment (Buehler et al., 1997; Cummings & Davies, 2010). For example, children are distressed by exposure to psychological aggression, such as verbal hostility, whereas children's exposure to constructive conflict, such as conflict resolution, reasoning, or progress toward resolution, is thought to ameliorate the effects of marital conflict (Cummings & Davies, 2010).

Interestingly, we know little about the types of conflict children are most exposed to. This is due to the fact that the majority of marital discord studies examine couples' conflict behavior in the dyad, while neglecting an examination of children's presence during parents' conflict behavior (Gottman, 1994; Notarius & Markman, 1993). Interestingly, even studies focusing on the effects of marital conflict on child development tend to use measures that ask participants to report on their own and their partners' behavior during conflict, while omitting questions about whether children are present. Studies that examine children's exposure to interparental conflict tend to take place in laboratory settings or use diary methods to assess interparental conflict (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, & Papp, 2003; Papp, Cummings, & Goeke-Morey, 2002), which are less suitable for use in larger, community-based samples across a wide range of populations. Because these observational studies demonstrate that considering child presence during interparental conflict is important for understanding the development of child adjustment problems, incorporating measurement of child presence during naturally occurring conflict in the home in community-based samples seems pertinent.

Everyday Conflict, Child Presence, and Child Development

Prior research indicates clearly that considering children's presence during interparental conflict is important for understanding parents' use of conflict tactics and their implications for child adjustment. Using a diary method, Papp et al. (2002) instructed parents to record conflict characteristics, including their use of conflict tactics and emotions, the duration of the conflict, who initiated it, and the topic(s) of the conflict over a 15-day period. In addition, parents reported on whether children were present during these interactions. They found that more conflict took place in the absence of the child than in the presence; however, when children were present, parents were more likely to use destructive conflict tactics (e. …

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