Reciprocal Influences Between Marital Conflict and Children’s Problems in British Biological and Step Families

Associations are often found between marital conflict and children’s problems. Although it is sometimes assumed that marital conflict causes children’s problems, it is also possible that children’s problem contribute to marital conflict and that other factors contribute to both. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) initially focused on 14,000 women living in the health district of Avon, England, who were expected to give birth between April 1991 and December 1992.

The Avon Brothers and Sisters Study (ABSS) used the ALSPAC as a sampling frame to select biological and step families having at least two children who could be studied longitudinally (Jenkins, Simpson, Dunn, Rasbush, & O’Connor, 2005). Children between the ages of 4 and 17 were assessed twice over a 2-year interval with the TRF. Parents completed a variety of measures assessing partner conflict, arguments about children, maternal negativity, and their children’s exposure to family conflict. Over the 2-year interval, the only significant predictor of changes in TRF Externalizing scores was found to be parents’ arguments about the children, indicating that parental conflict about children increased Externalizing problems in school.

However, it was also found that children’s Externalizing problems, as reported on the TRF, predicted increased parental conflict over the 2-year interval, especially in step families. Thus, as reported by teachers, children’s Externalizing problems (a) were increased by parents’ arguments about children, and (b) contributed to increases in parental conflict. The authors suggested that the greater effect of children’s Externalizing behavior on step families “may be mediated by the nonbiological parents’ involvement in discipline” (p. 36).

Reference: Jenkins, J., Simpson, A., Dunn, J., Rasbash, J., & O’Connor, T.G. (2005). Mutual influence of marital conflict and children’s behavior problems: Shared and nonshared family risks. Child Development, 76, 24-39.