The effects of marital conflict on parenting : observational ratings of the quality of family interactions directly following pleasant and conflictual marital interactions

Kitzmann, Katherine Moore, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Bell, Richard, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Hetherington, E. Mavis, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Marvin, Robert, Department of Psychiatry and NB Sciences, University of Virginia

Marital conflict affects children both directly and indirectly through disruptions in parenting. This study used observational ratings to compare family interactions after a pleasant versus conflictual marital discussion. It was hypothesized that parenting would be more disrupted after a conflictual marital exchange; that observed differences would be moderated by self-reported parent dysphoria, child exposure to conflict at home, and marital dissatisfaction; and that disrupted parenting after conflict would be more important than self-reported family characteristics in predicting child problems.

Participants were 40 intact families of 6- to 8-year-old boys. Self-report measures included the CES-D, the Children's Exposure/Reactions to Marital Disagreements scale, the Locke-Wallace SMAT, the Achenbach CBCL, and the Pictorial Scale of Perceived Competence and Acceptance for Young Children. A global coding system was reliably used to make observational ratings of family interactions during four 5-minute episodes. In episodes 1 and 3, the parents engaged in a pleasant or a conflictual discussion, in counterbalanced order. In episodes 2 and 4, families were observed interacting as a group directly after each marital discussion.

Compared to family interactions after the pleasant discussion, family interactions after the conflictual marital discussion involved less democratic parenting, more unbalanced alliances, and more father withdrawal. These effects were moderated by families' pre-existing problems of parent dysphoria, child exposure to conflict at home, and marital dissatisfaction. Observational measures of family interactions were especially important in the prediction of child internalizing problems, whereas families' pre-existing problems were more important in the prediction of child externalizing.

The main strength of this study is the use of observational data to specify ways in which children can be adversely affected by marital conflict, even when not directly exposed to it. Interpretation of some results was limited by a small effect size, however. Methodological reasons for the small effect size are considered, and suggestions are made for ways to more clearly identify family interaction patterns related to marital conflict. It is suggested that future research continue to use within-family analyses to elucidate how the marital and parent-child subsystems interact in the context of the larger family system.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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