MARITAL CONFLICT: ITS IMPACT ON ADOLESCENT ADJUSTMENT
The present study examines the impact of marital conflict on adolescent adjustment problems. Based on this general interest, the study further explores several related research questions, such as what specific aspects of marital conflict lead to adolescent adjustment problems, whether changes in marital conflict predict changes in adolescent problems, what kinds of adolescent problems are exhibited, and by what processes the relation between marital conflict and adolescent adjustment problems operates. While focusing on these research issues, this study also tries to overcome some of the methodological limitations in previous studies. The study used data from the Iowa Youth and Families Project. The results from structural equation modeling and latent growth curve analyses demonstrated that (1) two specific aspects of marital conflict, overt marital conflict and conflict over child-rearing, as well as general marital distress, had negative influences on adolescent adjustment; (2) increases in general marital distress and overt marital conflict predicted increases in adolescent problems over time; (3) poor parenting behavior mediated the relation between marital problems and adolescent poor well-being, externalizing problems, and internalizing problems; whereas adolescent feelings of insecurity mediated the relation between marital problems and adolescent poor emotional well-being and internalizing problems; (4) no moderating effect by poor parenting behavior or adolescent feelings of insecurity was found;and (5) the findings did not differ by adolescent gender.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE. INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER TWO. LITERATURE REVIEW AND ANALYTIC MODEL
Marital Conflict and Adolescent Adjustment Problems
Child and Adolescent Adjustment
Specific Aspects of Marital Conflict that Lead to Adolescent Adjustment Problems
Does Change in Marital Conflict Influence Change in Child Problems?
Accounting for the Association between Conflict and Adjustment
Mediating or Moderating Mechanisms?
Adolescent Gender Differences
The Present Study
CHAPTER THREE. METHODS
Evaluating Change across Time
CHAPTER FOUR. RESULTS
Various Aspects of Marital Conflict and Adolescent Adjustment Problems
Changes in Marital Conflict and Adolescent Adjustment Problems
CHAPTER FIVE. DISCUSSION
Conclusions from Hypotheses Testing
Strengths of the Present Study
Limitations of the Present Study
Suggestions for Future Research
APPENDIX A. MEASURES USED IN THE STUDY
APPENDIX B. MEANS, STANDARD DEVIATIONS, AND RANGES FOR STUDY MEASURES
APPENDIX C. RESULTS OF UNIVARIATE GROWTH CURVES
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1. The analytic model for testing the influence of the level of marital conflict on hypothesized mediating and/or moderating effects on change in adolescent adjustment.
Figure 2. The analytic model for testing changes in marital conflict and adolescent adjustment.
Figure 3. Latent growth curve analysis of parent report of marital unhappiness and adolescent report of low positive affect.
Figure 4. Testing mediating effect of poor parenting behavior on adolescent poor emotional well-being.
Figure 5. Testing mediating effect of adolescent feelings of insecurity on adolescent poor emotional well-being.
Figure 6. Testing mediating effect of poor parenting behavior on adolescent xternalizing problems.
Figure 7. Testing mediating effect of adolescent feelings of insecurity on adolescent externalizing problems.
Figure 8. Testing mediating effect of poor parenting behavior on adolescent internalizing problems.
Figure 9. Testing mediating effect of adolescent feelings of insecurity on adolescent internalizing problems.
LIST OF TABLES
Table 1. Correlations among latent constructs and control variables.
Table 2.Variables used in latent growth curve analysis.
Table 3. Summary of latent growth curve results and major fit indexes.
Earlier studies have provided evidence of a relationship between marital conflict and child adjustment (see reviews in Cummings & Davies, 1994; Emery, 1982; Grych & Fincham, 1990; Reid & Crisafulli, 1990). Exposure to high levels of marital conflict have been associated with the development of a wide variety of problems in children and adolescents, including externalizing problems, internalizing problems, social maladjustment, and deficits in cognitive competency (e.g., Davies, Hops, Alpert, & Sheeber, 1998; Goodman, Barfoot, Frye, & Belli, 1999; Grych, 1998; Stocker & Youngblade, 1999). For earlier studies, see reviews in Cummings & Davies (1994), Emery (1982), and Grych and Fincham (1990). Additionally, the relationship between marital conflict and child adjustment has been documented in both clinical and nonclinical samples (Grych & Fincham, 1990; Reid & Crisafulli, 1990), among boys as well as girls (Emery & O'Leary, 1984; Purcell & Kaslow, 1994), and across a wide range of ages including preschoolers (Dadds & Powell, 1991; Jouriles, Pfiffner, & O'Leary, 1988), school-aged children (Cummings, Davies, & Simpson, 1994; Davies & Cummings, 1998; Kerig, 1998; Smith & Jenkins, 1991), and adolescents (Brody & Forehand, 1990; Fauber, Forehand, Thomas, & Wierson, 1990; Grych, Fincham, Jouriles, & McDonald, 2000; Johnson, Gonzales, & Campbell, 1987; Long, Forehand, Fauber, & Brody, 1987; Peterson & Zill, 1986; Wierson, Forehand, Fauber, & McCombs, 1989).
With the association between marital conflict and child adjustment problems well- documented, the research question has changed to one that asks what specific aspects of marital conflict are related to what particular aspects of child adjustment (Fincham, 1994). In this regard, two theoretical frameworks are especially pertinent for the present investigation.Grych and Fincham's (1990) "Cognitive Contextual Framework" proposes that maritalconflict that is intense, poorly resolved, and child-related represents a destructive form ofconflict that is particularly upsetting to children. Their framework also proposes that thedegree of threat perceived by the child as a result of interparental conflict will have a significant influence on the child's development. They argue that marital conflict that is more threatening to children will invoke greater fear in children and will, therefore, have a greater impact on them.
Davies and Cummings' (1994) "Emotional Security Hypothesis" proposes that some forms of marital conflict are especially likely to undermine children's sense of emotional security and psychological well-being. They propose that marital conflicts that are intense, that involve direct threat to children, and are child-related are particularly stressful for children. When these types of conflict occur, they are likely to decrease children's emotional security. Both of these hypotheses agree that marital conflict that is intense, openly hostile, and that involves child-related issues is especially harmful for children. Many studies have supported the hypotheses and found that child problems are most likely to occur when marital conflict is openly hostile (e.g., Buehler et al., 1998; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Katz & Gottman, 1993; Rutter et al., 1974) and child related (e.g., Dadds & Powell, 1991;
Grych & Fincham, 1993; Nixon & Cummings, 1999; Snyder, Klein, Gdowski, Faulstich, & LaCombe, 1988). Moreover, some studies have shown that the impact of marital conflict on children is greater than the influence of general marital distress which concerns spousal reports of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or lack of commitment in their marriage (Grych & Fincham, 1990). The present study examines whether overt marital conflict and conflict over child-rearing, the two specific aspects of marital conflict proposed to be most damaging by the cognitive contextual framework and the emotional security hypothesis, have negativeinfluences on various adolescent adjustment problems. The research also evaluates whetherthe impact of overt and child-related marital conflict is more damaging to child adjustmentthan general marital distress.
Even though several studies have provided evidence that marital conflict influences child adjustment problems, little has been done to examine whether level or change in marital conflict have an impact on changes in child problems over time (Fincham, Grych, & Osborne, 1994). Because most previous studies have not involved longitudinal designs, evidence is sparse with regard to this research question. The present prospective, longitudinal study extends earlier research by investigating (1) whether the level of marital conflict leads to increases in adolescent maladjustment; (2) whether increases in marital conflict over time will predict increases in adolescent adjustment problems; (3) which type of marital conflict over time is most detrimental to adolescents; and (4) which types of adolescent problems are most affected in the long run.
Another research question that has drawn great interest concerns how marital conflict leads to child adjustment problems. The Disrupted Discipline Hypothesis (Emery, 1982), for example, argues that conflict in the marital relationship adversely affects the quality and consistency of parenting. Parents in conflict may be lax in their management of child behavior or may use opposing discipline strategies. These inconsistencies in parental discipline, in turn, contribute to adjustment problems in children. According to Davies and Cummings' (1994) Emotional Security Hypothesis, marital conflict can also directly undermine children's sense of security, which in turn, has an impact on child adjustment. Studies have found support for both poor parenting (e.g., Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1993; Fauber, et al, 1990) and emotional security (e.g., Davies & Cummings, 1998) as mediators of the relationship between marital conflict and child adjustment problems. However, some studies found that, instead of mediating, parenting behavior and children's appraisal of marital conflict moderate the relationship between marital conflict and child adjustment problems (e.g., Black & Pedro-Carroll, 1993; El-Sheikh
Harger, 2001; Frosch & Mangelsdorf, 2001; Kerig, 1998). The present study will examine whether parenting behavior and adolescent feelings of insecurity mediate or moderate the relationship between marital conflict and adolescent adjustment problems.
With regard to children's gender differences in response to marital conflict, earlier studies show that boys are more likely to exhibit externalizing problems whereas girls are at greater risk for internalizing problems (e.g., Block, Block, & Morrison, 1981; Cummings & Davies, 1994). Moreover, gender differences also have been found in the mediating process. For example, Block and colleagues (1981) suggest that boys are more affected by inconsistent parenting than girls when marital conflict occurs. However, some studies found that boys and girls are similarly affected by exposure to marital conflict (e.g., Buehler et al., 1998; Johnson & O'Leary, 1987). The present study tries to further understanding of whether boys and girls react differently to marital conflict and whether the possible mediating or moderating processes involving parenting behavior and adolescent feelings of insecurity vary by adolescent gender.
Another important aspect of the present study is that it examines the influence of marital conflict on three separate adolescent outcomes. Previous studies have tended to examine a single domain of adjustment problems, such as conduct problems or internalizingproblems; or alternatively, some studies have aggregated various dimensions of adolescent adjustment (see Johnson, 1996). The present study will use poor emotional well-being, externalizing problems, and internalizing problems as separate adolescent outcome measures to examine whether marital conflict has the same or different effects on different aspects of adolescent development.
The next chapter provides a review of theories and previous studies in the area of marital conflict and child adjustment problems. Based on these theories and previous studies, the analytic models propose that (1) both overt marital conflict and conflict over child- rearing will have adverse influences on adolescent adjustment, and their influence will be stronger than the effect of general marital distress; (2) both the level of and increases in marital conflict will lead to increases in adolescent adjustment problems over time; and (3) poor parenting behavior and adolescent feelings of insecurity will mediate or moderate the relationship between marital conflict and adolescent adjustment problems. As mentioned previously, the study will examine the influence of marital conflict on different domains of adolescent outcomes separately. Also, adolescent gender differences will be tested. In subsequent chapters, methods of study are reviewed, results are presented, and the findings are discussed in relation to the aims of the research. Using a prospective, longitudinal design, the present study focuses on 5 assessments of 451 adolescents and their parents over a period of 6 years. Both latent structural equation modeling and latent growth curve analyses are used to evaluate the analytic models.
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