An important field of psychology involves that of child development, from birth to adolescence (Harris & White, 2018). For a child to develop and become a fully adjusted adult, a happy, loving, understanding family environment is vital (Easterbrook, Cummings & Emde, 1994). Psychological evidence in this field have heavily stated that the quality of home-life and family relationships emotionally speaking are linked to child adjustment outcomes (Oliva, Arranz Parra & Olabarrieta, 2014). In essence, issues in a marriage, such as, marital dysphoria, marital distress and marital conflict all have an effect on child adjustment and greater the chances of developmental issues occurring.
An area which plays a crucial role in understanding the family’s influence on child adjustment is marital relationships, defined as “a high degree of intimacy, affection and empathy, allowing for a high quality and stable relationship”, (John, Seme, Roro & Tsui, 2016). Hence, strong marital relationships allow for couples to challenge each other and grow, individually and together, benefitting society and the family structure itself (South & Krueger, 2013). However, on the contrary to this, the converse can also be said of this. Marital relationships entailing conflict and dissatisfaction can have disastrous effects on the family structure and the marital relationships quality and well-being which can have a knock-on effect on the development of the off-spring, socio-emotionally, pro-socially and even further afield (Cummings, Goeke-Morey & Papp, 2004). For a child to develop emotionally, pro-socially and without behavioural problems, an established marriage with positive qualities is necessary.
Recent studies suggest that the change from a non-child house to a house with children can be straining on a marriage, seriously affecting marriage satisfaction (Shapiro, Gottman & Carrére, 2002). However, it is a well-documented fact for satisfaction to decrease when the first child is brought into the home, even in healthy and highly satisfied marriages. This is due to the increased responsibilities that come with having a child, alongside the enhanced parental stress and depression (Hackel, Ruble & Hackel, 1992). It is estimated that one fifth of parental-partnerships can be categorised as distressed (Cummings & El-Sheikh, 1991). In addition to this research has shown that children are affected less by divorce than marital conflict, making it a significant aspect for consideration among unsatisfied parents (Vaez, Indran, Abdollahi, Juhari & Mansor, 2015).
Behavioural problems are very common and have a high prevalence among children from all backgrounds (Koot, Verhulst, Boomsma & Koot, 1997). Studies have made efforts to highlight the commonality of the acts of aggression, noncompliance and acting out behaviours displayed by toddlers and preschool children, especially of those in hostile families (Shaw, Winslow & Flanagan, 1999). Research is still very new in the attempts to normalize these behaviours as can be seen in the rates of anxiety versus depression in this age range. The prevalence of anxiety amongst preschool children is measured at 10% while depression is much less prevalent at only 2% due to it being less diagnosed at this period (Eggers & Agnold, 2006). Additionally, in regards to the problems, aggressiveness and non-compliance alike are both obvious and cause disruption; the prevalence is usually observed during the preschool period. In a paper by Achenbach and Rescorla (2014), the researchers claim that child behavioural problems can be classified by two main groups: internalizing behaviour problems; and externalizing behaviour problems. Internalizing behaviour problems are categorised as being experiences of stress, or reactions occurring inside a person which do not reach the surface unlike externalizing behavioural problems which focus on developmental issues like compliance, physical aggression and hyperactivity. Without intervention these behaviour problems could cause a plethora of issues for the child going forward in life, such as, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity and numerous psychiatric problems (Maggs, Patrick & Feinstein, 2008). It has been shown in research that a high number of children with behavioural issues in the preschool period simply outgrow their problems as time progresses, however, the vast majority tend to develop the issues throughout their life (Ansari, 2018).
It is worth noting that it is not only marital relationships that can have an effect on this range of problems. Child behaviour problems can also stem from obsolete parenting techniques, child abuse and/or neglect, spoiling the child or serious illness trauma, negative life events (Quay, 1968). Thus, it is crucial to detect behavioural problems early in a child’s life and to intervene as quickly as possible to avoid allowing the problems to further develop and grow into much more complex and difficult issues which may not be possible to manage in adolescence and adulthood.
A child’s primary caregivers are key players in a child’s adjustment, physical and mental health, and the way in which they form relationships, all of which are necessary for a well-adjusted child’s successful development. In the relationship between child temperament and child behavioural problems, marital factors acts as a moderator (Frosch & Mangelsdorf, 2001). As an example, highly stressful familial environments or strained parental relationships can be associated with negative toddler/preschool child emotions (Martin & Clements, 2002). Toddlers/preschool children may react to this negativity with hostility, aggression and/or anxiety. A pathway for the development of problem behaviours can be identified. Starting with marital conflict, impacting offspring negatively causing them to act out with, for example, aggression (both physical and verbal), incompliance and resentment (Jouriles, Pfiffner & Ó’Leary, 1988). This ‘acting out’ allows for more serious issues such as anxiety, anti-social behaviour and school problems to be developed. Consequently, children of marital conflict pose a higher chance of developing issues in their relationships than that of children who come from satisfied and adjusted marriages; who exhibit less problems and have better well-being and emotional health (Larossa, Escudero & Cummings, 2009).
Research exists on child behavioural problems and marital conflict. However, as each study has their own research methods, procedures and definitions it is difficult to compare and contrast between them. Hence, it is important to find commonalities in previous research to shine a light on the conclusions relevant to future research. The research discussed below has been conducted in different settings around the world and aims to address the issues mentioned above.
Numerous studies have been conducted highlighting the effects of conflict witnessed by a child leading them to display externalizing and internalizing behaviours (Coln, Jordan & Mercer, 2013; Cummings & Davies, 2002; Katz & Gottman, 1993; Pendry, Carr, Papp & Antles, 2013). Furthering this research shows that child adjustment is hindered by these internalizing and externalizing behaviours caused by interparental conflict (Achenbach & Edelbrock, Howell & Achenbach 1987; Cummings, Cheung; Koss & Davies 2014; Davies, 2002; Emery & Ó’Leary, 1982; Grych & Fincham, 1990; Grych, Seid & Fincham, 1992). However, studies have shown that the internalizing and externalizing issues of children are mediated through dysfunctional marriage components like parent-child conflict and marital discord (DuRocher Schudlich & Cummings, 2003). Other studies have shown the different effects constructive and destructive interparental conflict have on child adjustment (Cummings & Davies, 2002; Cummings & Davies, 2013; Goeke-Morey, Cummings, Harold & Shelton, 2003; McCoy, George,). As to be expected constructive interparental conflict correlates positively with child adjustment; destructive interparental conflict negatively affects the adjustment of the offspring indicating that the children are more prone to get involved with parental conflict.
Similarly, it has been found that children in families with high conflict adopt fearful emotional behavioural strategies in relation to escalating and unresolved conflict (Koss, George, Bergman, Cummings, Davies & Cicchetti, 2011). Thus, it is fitting that research found children reacted negatively to aspects of interparental conflict which posed a threat to their emotional security compared to other forms of conflict not including such aspects (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Davies, Harold, Goeke-Morey, Cummings, Shelton & Rasi, 2002). These findings lead well into research conducted on emotional security and its effects on the relationship between marital conflict and child psychological issues as a mediator which garnered similar results (Cummings, Schermerhorn, Davies, Goeke-Morey & Cummings 2006; Davies, Harold et al., 2002). Cummings, Ballard, El-Sheikh and Lake (1991), both investigated the relationship between types of interparental conflict (resolved, unresolved and partially resolved) and child responses. Results indicated that constructive marital conflict (resolved) lead to a positive outcome on child adjustment (Easterbrooks, Cummings & Emde, 1994). On the contrary, Bradford, Vaughn and Barber (2008), examined the associations between marital conflict, parent-child conflict and their links to youth behaviour problems. Findings showed direct positive links between both overt and covert marital conflict. Owen and Cox (1997), postulated direct and indirect processes associating marital dysphoria to the security of infant- mother and infant-father attachment and disorganised attachment behaviour. Their research found that chronic parental conflict leaves the infant with experiences of frightened parents and lessened behavioural options to combat resulting distress. This paper complements another which looked at marital discord, hostile parenting and child antisocial behaviour. Path analyses showed that mothers, fathers and unrelated mothers and fathers alike all influenced child anti-social behaviour through parent to child hostility (Grigorenko, Cicchetti, Harold, Elam, Lewis, Rice & Thapar, 2012). One hundred and thirty nine 4 – 6 year olds (88 maltreated, 51 non-maltreated) and their mothers acted as participants in Maughan’s and Cicchetti’s (2002) study investigating child maltreatment and interadult violence on child emotion regulation and socio-emotional adjustment. Nearly 80% of maltreated pre-schoolers displayed dysregulated emotion patterns in comparison to only 37.2% of the control children. These findings allow for a deeper understanding of emotional dysregulation that might hinder the mental health of maltreated children with histories of interadult violence exposure. In line with this study El-Sheikh et al. (2008) examined marital aggression (physical and mental) and offspring physical and mental health. The researchers found that emotional security is a logical explanation for the influence of marital aggression against the parents on various levels of child adjustment, adding to the inference that marital aggression greatly effects child adjustment. Additionally, children exposed to marital conflict display symptoms of disordered eating, a precursor to the development of eating disorders (Bi, Haak, Gilbert, & Keller, 2017). Results show that dyadic parental conflict is linked to higher levels of restrained eating, emotional eating and external eating, even when parent feeding practices are controlled for. The pathways thought to be at fault for this could be that parental conflict was associated with increased child emotional security which was linked to added child anxiety, which was then related to disordered eating. It is also worth mentioning that as well as being a secondary pathway as mentioned above, anxiety also significantly acted as a direct mediator between parental conflict and each type of the three disordered eating habits.
Marital conflict has been shown to hamper child attention development. Studies documented the attention performance of children in homes of dyadic conflict (Denahm, Zahn-Waxler, Cummings & Iannotti, 1991). Findings show that children of interparental conflict moderate short-term attention focus through their physiological reactivity. In essence, it can be said that the negative relationship of marital conflict and the development of attention skills puts child behavioural adjustment in jeopardy. Conversely, David (2009) found that pre-schoolers low in effort control had more positive peer relations when mothers reported positive marital quality (positive emotional expressions and marital satisfaction). In addition, a longitudinal study carried out by Linville et al. (2010) conducted analysis on the association between marital satisfaction, parenting styles, parent depression and child behavioural problems. Regression analysis was carried out and found that marital satisfaction directly predicted child behaviours over time. These findings still remain significant even when variables such as parenting style, early child behaviour problems and parent depression were controlled for.
Studies examining the parental conflict on child delinquency issues have found significant results. Roth (2013) studied the effects family conflict and substance abuse had on delinquency behaviours of male children and adolescents aged 10-17 years old. A secondary analysis of existing data found that while parental substance abuse had no relationship with child substance abuse, interparental conflict did significantly affect delinquent behaviour. Various researchers deduced that interparental satisfaction and conflict are highly significant predictors of their child’s psychopathology, behavioural adjustment and functioning in childhood (Katz & Woodin, 2002).
This study has two main aims. Firstly, marital satisfaction is examined and the role it plays in the development of antisocial behaviours in children of hostile families. Afterwards, group membership is looked at on its role as a moderator against the relationship between marital satisfaction and child antisocial behaviour (i.e. as group membership increases does the effect of low marital satisfaction has on the development of child antisocial decrease?). Thus, this paper has two hypotheses.
This study analysed data collected from the Growing Up in Ireland survey, a longitudinal, national study examining a cohort of children living in the Republic of Ireland. The major aim of the study is to inform government policy in relation to young children, young people and families. This aim can be broken into the nine objectives which can be found in the GUI website. Data collection initiated in 2008/09, when participants were nine years of age. Following data was collected at waves 2 and 3 when participants were 13, 17 and 18 years of age respectfully. The study child, both their caregivers and their teacher all completed computer assisted personal interviews. In the case of caregivers, the primary caregiver is defined as the parent/guardian who spent the most time caring for the study child, as selected by the parents/guardians. For 7357 (97.8%) of study children, their mother was considered to be the primary caregiver at Wave 1. As for Wave 2, 7275 (96.7%) study children had mothers for primary caregivers.
According to the 2006 Census, 56,497 nine year olds lived in Ireland. A two-stage sampling method was used to recruit a proportionate sample of the nine year olds. In stage two a sample of nine year olds were selected from the schools gathered in stage one. Based on the population of nine year olds in the Census and the participating schools a sample size of 8,568 represented approximately 14 percent or about one in seven of every nine year old living in Ireland at the time.
Using this approach of sampling offered other benefits than being a comprehensive record for nine year olds. It allowed direct access to the study child’s teacher and principal who were study informants. It also reduced burden and contact time in the study child’s home as self-completion of the academic achievement tests could be completed in a group setting.
Child behavioural problems were screened for using the 25-item Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Five sub-scales exist in the measure, one measuring pro-social behaviour (e.g. child is kinder to younger children) and four measuring problem behaviour: emotional symptoms; conduct problems; hyperactivity/inattention; and peer relationship problems. Parents were asked to rank their child’s behaviour in relation to the statements provided on a scale from 0 (not true) to 2 (certainly true). Some scores require reverse coding (e.g. thinks things out before acting). The scale, as a whole has been shown to recognise challenging behavioural problems in children (Cronbach’s α = .76) with a higher score indicating higher problem behaviour.
Group membership was measured as the groups children were part of (sports, dance, drama, homework, etc.…). Responses in Wave one were measured on a yes/no basis to each item with the summed number of groups being computed. In wave two, study children were asked how often they participated in activities on a scale ranging from 1(never participates) to 4 (participates 4 or more times a week). To remain consistent with group membership in Wave 1, variables were recoded to reflect yes/no responses. Score 1, ‘never participates’ was recoded as no and all other values were recoded as yes and the summed total was computes as a value. Higher values in both waves indicate membership to more groups.
The Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS) was used to measure marital satisfaction for the Primary Caregiver and Secondary if appropriate. This 7 item scale assessed participants’ self-report and categorised marriages as being either adjusted or distressed. This assessment allowed for a general satisfaction score to be generated by summing the results from all 7 items together. As for this study a 4 item subscale was used.
Statistical analyses were conducted using IBM’s Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 24 to carry out Linear Regressions examining the degree to which marital satisfaction (DAS) has a significance on antisocial behaviour (SDQ).
A hierarchical linear regression was conducted to examine if low marital satisfaction measured by the DAS significantly predicted antisocial behaviour (measured by the SDQ). The model, with low marital satisfaction and antisocial behaviour as predictors was significant, F(1,6744) = 152.62, p = <.000, adjusted R2 = .022. As can be seen in Table 2(?), low marital satisfaction, significantly predicted antisocial behaviour, and explained 2.2% of the variance in antisocial behaviour (β = -.149, p = <.000).
A hierarchical linear regression was conducted to examine if low marital satisfaction measured by the DAS significantly predicted antisocial behaviour (measured by the SDQ). The model, with low marital satisfaction and antisocial behaviour as predictors was significant, F(1, 6445) = 126.11, p = <.000, adjusted R2 = .019. As can be seen in Table 2(?), low marital satisfaction, significantly predicted antisocial behaviour, and explained 1.9% of the variance in antisocial behaviour (β = -.139, p = <.000).
In the next step of analysis, group membership was examined as a potential influencer of antisocial behaviour. To analyse this an extension to SPSS was used called PROCESS (Version 3.3; Hayes 2018, Model 1, 10,000 bootstraps). In both waves marital satisfaction was entered as the predictor, antisocial behaviour as the criterion and group membership as the moderator. Results to each moderation analysis are as stated below.
We tested if the relationship between marital satisfaction and anti-social behaviour was significantly moderated by group membership. We predicted that the effect of marital satisfaction on antisocial behaviour decreases at higher levels of group membership. Contrary to predictions, there was an insignificant interaction between marital satisfaction and group membership on antisocial behaviour, B = .025, SE = .013, p = .055. The effect size of the interaction on antisocial behaviour decreased and became marginally significant at the group membership scores mean, B = -.1231, SE = 0.01, p = <.000, and is significant at one SD below the mean B = -.1475, SE = 0.01, p = <.000. These results did not support our prediction: high marital satisfaction decreases antisocial behaviour at higher levels of group membership.
Table 1 – moderation pathway of Group Membership on the Marital Satisfaction on Antisocial Behaviour interaction in Wave 1.