Kids and parents: A two way street

February 10, 2005

It's the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: Do difficult children increase marital conflict or does marital conflict contribute to a worsening of children's behavioral problems? Turns out it's a little of both, according to a study published in the January/February 2005 journal, Child Development.

When researchers at the universities of Toronto in Canada, London in Great Britain, and Rochester Medical Center in New York investigated 296 children from 127 families in England over a period of two years, they found that when parents argued more about their children, those children's behavioral problems at school increased over time. Conversely, the researchers found, children's behavioral problems also led to increased marital conflict over time, particularly in families with stepchildren.

The findings provide important information for therapists who work with troubled families, notes lead researcher Jennifer Jenkins, PhD, of the University of Toronto. "They need to consider both the ways in which child behavior evokes responses from parents and the ways in which parental behavior evokes responses from children," she said.

Not all siblings in the family were equally exposed to their parents' marital conflict. For instance, researchers found, parents argued more about one sibling than another, and some siblings were present in the room during arguments more often than other siblings. These differences in sibling experiences were greatest in stepfamilies.

The differences occur, researchers suspect, because different children evoke different experiences in parents. "Something like marital conflict, which we have previously considered to be a risk to which all children in the family were exposed, turns out to be a risk that varies quite a bit across children," said Dr. Jenkins. "Some children, because of their own personalities, start up more fights between their parents. The fact that siblings have very different experiences of family life may help explain why children in the same family develop very different personalities and behavior."
-end-
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 6, Issue 1, The Mutual Influence Of Marital Conflict And Children's Behavior Problems: Shared And Non-Shared Family Risks by Jenkins J (University of Toronto), Dunn J (University of London), O'Connor TG (University of Rochester), Rasbash J (University of London) and Simpson A (University of Toronto. Copyright 2005 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

Society for Research in Child Development

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