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Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children

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).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodInterparental Conflict—Effects on Children - Theoretical Models, Dimensions Of Marital Conflict, Individual Protective Factors, Conclusion