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The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project
Manuscripts and Online Data Base
Overview of Findings by the Authors

#8 Impact of Parental Conflict and Emotional Abuse on
Children and Families

Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, Michael A. Skibo, and Patrick T. Davies
113 pages.
Full manuscript available in Partner Abuse Vol. 3, Issue no. 3 (2012), pp. 379-400.

Four different subtopics are categorized and reviewed.  These include the impact of   mutual couple conflict, verbal, and emotional abuse/control on children; the impact of   father perpetrated verbal, emotional abuse/control on children; the impact of mother perpetrated verbal, emotional abuse/control on children; and the impact of partner conflict on the family system including consideration of family stress, boundaries, alliances, and family structure

Studies which were published after 1990 and appeared in peer-reviewed journals are included in the review of research.  We define “partner conflict” as the presence of conflictual interactions, non-verbal and verbal indicators of anger hostility, and emotional abuse/control within interparental relationships involving children.   Thus, studies included within this topic include assessments of these dimensions of interparental conflict and emotional abuse and also include children in the family in the basis of analysis.  Our review of the literature identified 105 studies which met the criteria listed above.  There were also 56 studies which fell under the topics and were considered, but were determined to not meet criteria for inclusion. 

As an organizing framework for summarizing studies within this subtopic we utilize family systems conceptualizations which underscore two primary pathways by which interparental conflict and abuse may convey risk to children’s development.  First, the direct pathway hypothesis posits that interparental conflict has a direct impact on children’s functioning by virtue of their exposure to disagreements, disputes, hostility and anger between parents.  Second, the indirect pathway hypothesis proposes that interparental conflict engenders difficulties in parenting and parent-child relationships which in turn put children at risk for perturbations in development. 

Findings from studies examining both direct and indirect path hypotheses suggest some complexity in the pathways outlined within these models.  Specifically, results from these studies suggest that the impact of interparental conflict on children through diminished parenting behaviors varies across the type of conflict and types of parenting behaviors examined and across the characteristics of the sample examined.  First, across both direct and indirect pathway research, children evidence a host of problematic outcomes when living in household contexts characterized by high levels of marital hostility, contempt, and withdrawal.  Studies show elevated levels of child depression, anxiety, aggression, deviancy, poor school adjustment, peer problems, insecure attachment, and lower self-esteem.  It is clear that children are adversely impacted by interparental conflict.  Second, with respect to findings for the direct path hypothesis, it appears that the nature and valence of the conflict has differential impacts on children’s outcomes, with conflict characterized by higher levels of contempt, withdrawal, and hostility having a greater impact upon children than conflict characterized solely by anger.  In addition, the topic of the discussion matters for children with conflict topics germane to the child, such as disagreements over child rearing or blame of the child having the most serious impact.  

For findings with regard to the indirect path hypothesis, conflict appears to impact a broad range of parenting behaviors including parental sensitivity, warmth, consistency in discipline, harsh/hostile discipline, and psychological control.  In addition, both maternal and paternal parenting behaviors appear to suffer from interparental conflict, with some results suggesting a greater impact upon mothers compared to fathers.  However, there findings for parent gender differences at this point in time are somewhat equivocal.  Finally, perturbations in parenting have an impact upon children, with greater effects for fathers than mothers.   We discuss refinements in these two hypotheses by process-oriented research endeavors explicating potential mechanisms underlying how interparental conflict impacts child development.   For example, recent research suggests that neurobiological and physiological functioning may be critical mediators of the relationships between interparental conflict and child problematic outcomes.

It is important to note that the bulk of the studies we identified in our review of the literature fell into the first subtopic.   This is in turn reflected in the paucity of research on the second and third subtopic, father perpetrated verbal/emotional abuse and mother perpetrated verbal/emotional abuse on children.  Findings from this small corpus of studies indicate the fathers and mothers are distinct actors in the impact of interpartner conflict on children and future research should work to better disentangle the unique role that they play in process models.   For example, it appears that the differential impact of fathers vs mothers may depend upon the developmental age of the child, with greater effects found for mother-child relationships and child outcomes during infancy and toddler years, and conversely greater associations between father-child relationship functioning and child development during school-age years. 

Finally, we identified studies which examined the impact of partner conflict on the family system as a whole.  Interparental relationships exist within a larger family unit, and the utilization of family systems frameworks for research on interparental conflict and children provide important documentation of how discord within one subsystem may reverberate throughout the rest of the family unit. The primary utility of a family systems approach is in demarcating how patterns or typologies of family functioning in the wake of interparental conflict impact children’s development.  For example, enmeshed and disengaged family patterns have differential implications for children.  Thus, the use of pattern-based analyses are useful for clinical endeavors with stressed families,  however, assessing patterns of functioning at the level of the family also brings with it a host of methodological and interpretational difficulties.  For example, according to the principle of holism in family systems theory, understanding the whole family dynamic requires quantification of the relationship structures, boundaries, power distributions, and communication patterns of the other family subsystems. 

Implications of this research for public policy initiatives and intervention efforts suggest that targeting only the interparental dyad for services may not alleviate the effects of interparental conflict on children, and that consideration of the whole family and processes within the family is necessary for the mental health and wellbeing of children in the family.  In addition, this body of research emphasizes the criticality of contextualizing policy and clinical work within a developmental framework, as the nature of associations between interparental conflict and parent-child relationship difficulties depends to some extent upon the age of the children in the family. Finally, we offer several suggestions for future research including: (a) more precisely identify the multiple dimensions of family process in interparental conflict models, (b) explicating possible explanatory mechanisms underlying direct and indirect pathways, (c) examining possible moderating variables to determine for whom these family pathways may pose elevated risk or resilience, and (d) increasing the methodological rigor in empirical designs.