Applied Psychology OPUS

Marital Conflict and the Developing Adolescent

Shelby Bambino

Conflict between parents is understood to affect the dynamic of the entire family (Erel & Burman, 1995). Disagreement in marriages will inevitably arise, but it is the way the parents choose to respond o the discord that can create a positive or negative impact on the child (Erel & Burman, 1995). Research has characterized negative marital conflict as comprised of five factors: intensity, frequency, consistency, content, and resolution, such that negative marital conflict is consistent over time, characterized by child-centered content, high intensity, frequently occurring, and lacking in a visible resolution to the child (Davis & Cummings, 1994; Erel & Burman, 1995). Negative conflict between parents is detrimental to children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, and can damage their relationship with their parents (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, & Papp, 2004; Cummings, Iannotti, & Zahn-Waxler, 1985; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Grych, Seid, & Fincham, 1992).

The precise impact of marital conflict, however, varies based on the developmental stage and gender of the child (Cummings et al., 1981; Cummings et al., 1985; Cummings et al., 2004; Emery & O’Leary, 1982; Porter & O’Leary, 1980; Raver, 2014; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Specifically, research indicates that toddlers who experience negative marital conflict perform worse on emotional identification tasks, and are less emotionally connected to their mothers (Cummings et al., 1981; Cummings et al., 1985; Fantuzzo et al., 1991; Jouriles et al., 1988; Raver, 2014). By contrast, early school-aged children (i.e., between the ages of four and eight) often exhibit social delays as a result of exposure to negative marital conflict (Cummings et al., 1989; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Fantuzzo et al., 1991; Fincham, Grynch & Osborne, 1994; Hershorn & Rosenbaum, 1985; Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Kelly, 2000). Extending across developmental stages, boys tend to present more with externalizing symptoms, such as aggression, while girls appear to have more challenges with internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety and depression; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Zimet & Jacob, 2001).  

Although some research has documented the developmental effects of negative marital conflict on toddlers and school-aged children, the majority of research focuses on effects during adolescence. As with younger children, adolescents who are exposed to negative marital conflict display detriments to their social, emotional, and cognitive development. However, adolescence is a time of intense physical, social, and emotional changes, making it imperative for researchers and interventionists alike to explore the particular influence of negative marital conflict on youth during this developmental stage (Cummings et al., 2004; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Grych et al., 1992; Wierson, Forehand, & McCombs, 1988; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). This paper explores the effects of negative marital conflict on American adolescents, in terms of social, emotional, and cognitive development, and identifies important gender differences across these domains.

Social

Adolescence is characterized by an increased engagement in peer interactions, as youth begin to create more intimate friendships outside the home (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2002; Wierson et al., 1988; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Therefore, exposure to negative marital conflict during this developmental stage has negative implications for an adolescent’s social interactions (Cummings et al., 2004). More particularly, researchers have identified that adolescents exposed to marital conflict have significantly lower conflict resolution skills and higher aggressive responses (Cummings et al., 1985; Cummings et al., 2004; Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Jouriles, Barling, & O’Leary, 1987). Adolescents in high-marital conflict homes witness their parents, two people who are understood to care deeply for one another, arguing over a variety of subjects, and consequently may internalize these skills and begin to utilize them in their own lives (Cummings et al., 2004). Some of these poor conflict resolution skills include ineffective communication, an inability to compromise, and difficulty with self-regulation (Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Long, Forehand, Fauber, & Brody, 1987; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). These learned detrimental conflict resolution skills can be understood as related to the aspect of negative marital conflict where the adolescent is unaware of the resolution to the conflict (Cummings et al., 1985; Cummings et al., 2004; Davis & Cummings, 1994; Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Jenkins & Smith, 1991).

Furthermore, adolescents who are exposed to negative marital conflict also tend to display more adverse parent-child relationships related to their lack of productive social skills (Cummings et al., 2004; Long et al., 1987; Wierson et al., 1988; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Adolescents frequently report a nervousness or inability to gauge their parent’s mood and how they may respond in a given situation, which affects their likelihood to approach their parent (Zimet & Jacob, 2001). The uncertainty in perceiving the parents’ moods causes the adolescent to be more cautious in contacting and interacting with them as he or she worries about the consequences of upsetting or angering them (Zimet & Jacob, 2001). The lack of predictability in regards to how the parent may respond to the adolescent becomes discouraging and daunting for many adolescents which has been found to relate to withdrawal of the adolescence and less frequent parent-child interactions (Long et al., 1987; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Therefore, marital conflict has complex and diverse affects on adolescent’s social development (Cummings et al., 2004; Long et al., 1987; Wierson et al., 1988; Zimet & Jacob, 2001).   

Emotional

Beyond social adversities, adolescents in homes saturated with marital conflict experiences challenges in adaptive emotionality, including increases in feelings of aloneness, anxiety, depression, and stress (Cummings et al., 2004; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Fincham et al., 1994; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000; Wierson et al., 1988). A recent study revealed a positive relation between levels of conflict within the home and adolescents’ increased sadness and feelings of loneliness (Raver, 2014). As the conflict escalates, adolescents frequently isolate themselves physically and emotionally, in order to escape the negativity within their homes (Cummings et al., 2004; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Fincham et al., 1994; Grych et al., 1992; Wierson et al., 1988). As adolescents isolate themselves, they often begin to harbor feeling of responsibility for the conflict (Cummings et al., 2004). The feeling of responsibility can overwhelm the adolescent and cause them to respond by further isolating themselves (Cummings et al., 2004; Grych et al, 1992). The combination of isolation and feelings of responsibility for the conflict make it increasingly hard for them to cope with not only the conflict, but also everyday stressors that they experience as adolescents (Cummings et al., 2004; Grych et al, 1992).

Furthermore, the feelings of responsibility and involvement in the conflict have been found to relate to an increased risk for developing anxiety and depression (Cummings et al., 2004; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000; Raver, 2014). As an adolescent becomes emotionally involved with the conflict, they begin to internalize much of the disagreement, responding to the conflict as if they were truly part of it (Cummings et al., 2004; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000; Raver, 2014). This immense level of investment has been correlated to the adolescents’ inability to separate themselves from their parent’s marital dispute which, in turn, increases their risk for developing symptoms of anxiety and depression (Cummings et al., 2004; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000; Raver, 2014).

Additionally, adolescents who are emotionally situated in their parent’s marital conflict often have a distorted view of the dispute as they begin to side with one parent over another not fully understanding the complexities of the disagreement (Cummings & Cummings, 1988; Fincham et al., 1994; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000). As adolescents think more about the conflict they tend to misconstrue the situation further, creating an inaccurate depiction of the conflict (Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000). This misconception of the conflict is oftentimes stressful and anxiety-provoking, as the child is unaware of where the “truth” lies within the disagreement (Cummings & Cummings, 1988; Fincham et al., 1994; Grych et al., 1992; Kelly, 2000). Moreover, the way adolescents perceive the conflict relates to whether they are able to adaptively cope in other stressful situations as well (Cummings & Cummings, 1988). This suggests that the more an adolescent is misinterpreting the conflict, the higher level of stress they experience and the worse of they are at coping with those stressors (Cummings & Cummings, 1988). Therefore, it is not only the level of the conflict, which affects the adolescent’s emotional regulation, but how they experience the conflict as well that matters in terms of emotional development (Cummings & Cummings, 1988; Fincham et al., 1994; Kelly, 2000).

Cognitive

Beyond the social and emotional adversities that adolescents experience, negative marital conflict is also associated with a decrease in cognitive performance, namely, academic functioning (Grych et al., 1992; Harold, Aitken, & Shelton, 2007; Long et al., 1987; Wierson et al., 1988). Adolescence is characterized by both an increase in personal independence and responsibility and a decrease in parental monitoring (Jenkins & Smith, 1991). However, for adolescents of high-conflict homes, parental monitoring may decrease rapidly and excessively, as parents are absorbed with the conflict (Garber & Dodge, 1991; Jenkins & Smith, 1991). Further, unrealistic expectations, such as preparing meals for younger siblings, getting themselves and their siblings to and from school, or even mediating conflict between the parents, may be placed upon the adolescents (Garber & Dodge, 1991; Jenkins & Smith, 1991). These unattainable responsibilities and expectations of the youth within the home have been associated with lower academic achievement (Garber & Dodge, 1991; Harold et al., 2007; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Kelly, 2000). Specifically, the decrease in academic achievement results from the adolescents’ preoccupation with the home conflict, challenging their ability to focus on their schoolwork (Garber & Dodge, 1991; Harold et al., 2007; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Kelly, 2000).

Interestingly, research indicates that there may be a relation between an adolescent’s preoccupation with the home conflict and their cognitive abilities (Cummings & Cummings, 1988; Grych et al., 1992; Wierson et al., 1988). This research has found overt conflict to be better for youth, as there is little left to the imagination (Grych et al., 1992). In situations where the conflict is more covert, adolescents often spend a lot of time thinking up what is happening and their cognitive functioning is negatively affected by this action (Cummings & Cummings, 1988; Grych et al., 1992; Harold et al., 2007). When conflicts are not discussed or actively hidden from the child, it becomes a taboo topic where the adolescent wants to know what is going on so they spend meaningful time throughout their day thinking about what the conflict, often times fabricating the situation (Grych et al., 1992). This suggests it is less about the actual content of the conflict, and more how the conflict is handled in relation to the adolescent, that affects their cognitive abilities (Grych et al., 1992; Wierson et al., 1988).

Effects of Gender Across Domains

Although there are many ways in which exposure to negative marital conflict impacts adolescent development, research suggests that these impacts may differ across genders (Emery & O’Leary, 1982; Oltmanns et al., 1977; Porter & O’Leary, 1980; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). These disparities result form the different characteristics that are typically ascribed to each gender, and, relatedly, because of how parents treat their daughters and sons differently (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Zimet & Jacob, 2001).

Beginning at birth, children are conditioned to develop particular characteristics based on their gender, which is seen early through gender-typed toys (Blakemore & Centers, 2005; Campenni, 1999). Girl-typed toys work to develop communication skills and nurturing abilities, while boy-typed toys develop independence and competitiveness (Blakemore & Centers, 2005; Campenni, 1999; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006). These gender differences are also highlighted through parental interactions as mothers often engage more emotionally with their daughters than sons (Cummings et al., 1985; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006).
For boys, findings show that high-marital conflict homes are associated with the adolescent turning outward with their frustrations and annoyances, showing their distress through externalizing symptoms (Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). This is thought to be associated with the fact boys are, stereotypically, less likely to show emotion, so they are taught less about how to self-soothe (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Additionally, adolescent boys are seeking autonomy and are therefore hanging out with their peers more frequently while unequipped with the necessary skills to resolve conflicting situations, and are likely to respond with anger (Cummings et al., 1985; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006).

By contrast, girls in high-conflict homes often present with internalizing symptoms, as girls are more likely to turn inward with their emotions increasing anxiety and distress (Cummings et al., 1985; Cummings, Davies, & Simpson, 1994; Davies & Lindsay, 2004; El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Parents stereotypically allow their daughters to be more emotional, which is understood to be a reason why they respond less frequently with outward anger and more often with inward emotions (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006; Jenkins & Smith, 1991).

In terms of parental interactions, parents frequently believe boys can handle more emotional stress, and thus allow more opportunities for their sons to be involved with the conflict, either directly or indirectly, than they do with their daughters (Cummings et al., 1994; Dadds, Atkinson, Turner, Blums, & Lendich, 1999). This can be related to the stereotypical belief that males are stronger (El-Sheikh &Whitson, 2006; Jenkins & Smith, 1991). However, interestingly, research shows the closer the relationship a mother and daughter has, the more involvement the daughter will have in the conflict (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006). It is the close connection between mother and daughter, which results in the mother feeling more comfortable sharing her marital conflicts with her daughter. This shows that stereotypes, in combination with how parents react to these stereotypes, influence how adolescents are influenced by negative marital conflict.

Conclusion

Research indicates the negative implications marital conflict has on adolescents (e.g., Cummings et al., 2004). Adolescents who grow up in families overwhelmed with marital conflict experience challenges in their social, emotional, and cognitive development (Grych et al., 1992; Long et al., 1987; Wierson et al., 1988; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Additionally, research has begun to look at the differences among girls and boys involved in marital conflict (Emery & O’Leary, 1982; Grych et al., 1992; Oltmanns et al., 1977; Porter & O’Leary, 1980; Zimet & Jacob, 2001).

Despite beginning to look into the difference of how girls and boys are affected differently by marital conflict, not all studies have found differences between genders (Grych et al., 1992). In fact, some studies suggest that gender disparities might be the result of reporting biases from parents and adolescents (Grych et al., 1992; Jenkins & Smith, 1991). Reporting biases are understood to appear from the stereotypical relationships parents have with their adolescents, such that a mother’s view of her daughter as more emotional and her son stronger, impacts the actions she reports about her adolescents (Jenkins & Smith, 1991). Similarly, adolescent reporting biases are believed to be associated with gender-stereotypical traits, in that girls believe they are supposed to be more emotional and are therefore more likely to take on this role (Jenkins & Smith, 1991). Ultimately, more research is needed in order to draw conclusion of how negative marital conflict affects adolescent girls and boys.

However, this body of literature does have several limitations, one being the diverse definitions of marital conflict across cultures. What may be considered excessive conflict in one culture may reflect the way another culture communicates effectively (Zimet & Jacob, 2001). It is always important to be aware of cultural differences and future research should aim to evaluate the effects of marital conflict across varying cultures. Another limitation is the demographics of the participants. Although we are aware of the deleterious effects across all developmental stages, the majority of research has been done on adolescent’s ages nine to fifteen, with virtually no research done on the effects of negative marital conflict on infant development. Because infants are developing rapidly during their first years of life it is imperative to better understand the impacts parents are having on their children during this time (Cummings et al., 1981).

Bolstering this field will address gaps in our knowledge of how marital conflict influences children’s development. Examining the influence of marital conflict on infant development will provide a deeper understanding of the influence parents have on their children and the importance of healthy relationships. These findings can inform interventions, allowing children exposed to marital conflict to be treated in the most effective way for positive development.

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