The relationship between patterns of marital conflict and child behavior: Linking parental interaction and child responses to conflict

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Barbara Fiese


Conflict, Marital conflict, Child behavior, Parental interaction

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology | Family, Life Course, and Society | Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


A number of different theories have been proposed which link marital discord to a child's exhibition of acting out behaviors. In order to study this mechanism, it is important to discern particular patterns of marital conflict which lead to a child's acting out. The patterns of demand/withdraw and mutually hostile are quite destructive within the family. A family systems model predicts that children react with certain coping strategies and emotional responses in order to preserve a neutral, non-negative atmosphere when parents demonstrate such destructive conflict patterns. Therefore, this study investigated whether children in homes where parents display these patterns exhibited increased levels of intervention and more intense negative emotions in response to simulated marital conflict. Also of interest were potential differences in the child's responses to the simulated conflicts regardless of the patterns used by the child's parents. Lack of conflict resolution in the simulations was also studied as a variable detrimental to the child.

Thirty-eight families were interviewed, during which parents engaged in a marital discussion task. Children were presented with a series of audio-taped simulations of marital conflict designed to mimic mutually hostile and demand/withdraw patterns, and they included resolved and unresolved interactions. After hearing each vignette, children rated their level of intensity on four emotions: Mad, sad, worried, and helpless. In addition, children was asked what they would do if their own parents acted similarly to the actors on the audio-tape.

Results indicate that children (1) reacted with more anger and worry in response to mutually hostile vignettes versus demand/withdraw vignettes, (2) responded with more anger, sadness, and worry in response to unresolved simulations than resolved simulations, and (3) exhibited more intrusive styles of coping with unresolved versus resolved interactions. These results seem to support cognitive-contextual framework for how a child's appraisal of conflict is associated with their response. A family-systems model could not be investigated because parents' actual conflictual styles were not destructive. These results extend previous findings, and these are discussed.