A Longitudinal Study of Interparental Conflict, Emotional and Behavioral Reactivity, and Preschoolers’ Adjustment Problems Among Low-Income Families


The deleterious effects of conflict on children are reflected in the long history of research documenting the positive relationship between interparental conflict and child adjustment problems.  Parental discord has been associated with a wide range of negative outcomes in children, including externalizing (Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Jouriles, Murphy, & O’Leary, 1989) and internalizing behavior problems (Johnston, Gonzalez, & Campbell, 1987; Long, Slater, Forehand, & Fauber, 1988).  In addition, parental conflict has been shown to be related to poor child outcomes across different family structures, including divorced, separated, and two-parent samples (Emery, 1988; Grych & Fincham, 1990). 

In recent decades, researchers have turned from documenting the relationship between conflict and behavior problems to establishing possible mechanisms by which these factors are related.  Davies and Cummings (1994) have proposed a model based on emotional-security, which hypothesizes that children are distressed by interparental conflict because it threatens their sense of emotional security, either by threatening personal safety, or threatening their relationship with caretakers.  Thus, conflict is highly aversive, and children are motivated to react emotionally and instrumentally to reduce their distress.  Behaviors that succeed in reducing distress are maintained and repeated at future exposures to conflict.  Over time, children’s negative reactions to witnessing parental conflict may become automatic, and generalize to other conflict situations such as with teachers or peers.  Thus, Davies and Cummings hypothesize that exposure to high levels of interparental conflict jeopardizes children’s emotional security, which in turn increases their risk for developing behavior problems.

A large body of research, primarily conducted by Cummings, Davies, and colleagues, has demonstrated that children exhibit significant emotional and behavioral reactions when exposed to interadult conflict in analogue experiments.  In these studies, specific types of coping styles (e.g., preoccupation/vigilance, aggression) have been related to interparental conflict (Cummings, Ianotti, & Zahn-Waxler, 1985; Cummings, Vogel, Cummings, J.S., & El-Sheik; 1989; Cummings & Davies, 1998; J. S. Cummings, Pelligrini, Notarius, & Cummings, 1989; Jenkins, Smith, & Graham, 1989).  However, the majority of the studies have examined these processes in relatively small samples of married, middle-class, primarily Caucasian families using cross-sectional designs.  Furthermore, less work has investigated these processes in preschool age children in relation to child adjustment problems.   

In the context of more severe family adversity, it is unclear whether relations between children’s reactivity and parental conflict would be similar.  It has been hypothesized that low-income parents are faced with unique stressors (e.g., fewer childcare resources, more crowded living space; Sameroff, 1983) that may contribute to increased interparental tension and aggression (Emery, 1988; Hennessy, Rabideau, Cicchetti, & Cummings, 1994; McLoyd, 1990), that in turn, affects children’s adjustment.  Relatively few studies are available that focus on the effects of marital discord in low SES families even though lower SES has been associated with increased physical aggression between partners and higher rates of child behavior problems (Straus, 1991; for exceptions, see Cummings, Hennessy, Rabideau, & Cicchetti, 1994b).  Perhaps relations between conflict and reactivity are stronger, given the potentially higher occurrence of interparental violence in these contexts.  Still, it is possible that for children living in high risk environments, characterized by a myriad of other anxiety-provoking stimuli (e.g., harsh parenting, exposure to neighborhood violence; McLoyd, 1990), parental conflict may be less strongly associated with the development of emotional security and child psychopathology.  In contrast, for middle-class children, parental conflict may stand out because of its high intensity relative to other interactions children have at home, and its direct challenge to children’s emotional security.

The present study examines the utility of the emotional security model in a relatively large sample of children at risk for child psychopathology.  The sample included only boys because the study’s original intent was to investigate externalizing problems, for which boys are at higher risk than girls.  Previous research also suggests a more consistent relationship between exposure to parental discord and behavior problems for boys (Emery & O’Leary, 1980; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Porter & O’Leary, 1980), and an increased tendency for boys to perceive threat in reaction to interparental conflict (Cummings, Davies, & Simpson, 1994a).  This study seeks to replicate the previous findings that emotional and behavioral reactivity to exposure to conflict is related to both history of interparental conflict and the development of behavior problems.  The present investigation adds to prior research by: 1) investigating this model in a high-risk sample of young children; 2) examining longitudinal relations among these three constructs across a three year period; and 3) examining direct, additive, and interactive (i.e., moderating) effects in addition to mediating effects of reactivity on the relation between interparental discord and behavior problems.  Additionally, secondary hypotheses regarding the effects of persistence of interparental conflict over time on children’s reactivity and behavior problems are examined.

Interparental Conflict, Children’s Reactions to Conflict, and Child Adjustment Over Time

Although parenting practices, attachment history, and affective quality of other relationships in the family are also hypothesized to affect emotional security, the central component of the emotional security model involves the history of interparental conflict.  Davies and Cummings (1994) have proposed that children’s emotional security is most compromised by destructive interparental relations in the early years.  There is consistent support from longitudinal studies of divorce (Hetherington et al., 1982) for the hypothesis that long-term exposure to parental conflict affects children more adversely than less frequent or intense exposure.  Other longitudinal studies of child development and parent-parent relations have also demonstrated a higher risk for negative outcomes (e.g., behavior problems) when interparental conflict was frequent, intense, and experienced over a long period of time (Chess, Thomas, Mittelman, Korn, & Cohen, 1983; Crockenberg & Forgays, 1996; Katz & Gottman, 1995).

Cummings, Davies, and others have posited that repeated exposure to interparental discord affects children by sensitizing them to conflict, whereby their responses are intensified at subsequent exposure (Davies & Cummings, 1994; El-Sheikh & Cummings, 1992; Zillman, 1983).  Therefore, one might expect that children who have been exposed to a longer, more persistent history of interparental conflict may be particularly at risk for developing behavior problems because of increased opportunities to witness and become emotionally aroused by negative interactions.  There is some evidence that children’s reactivity differs as a function of history of marital conflict.  In a study of 4 to 9 year-old children and their responses to background anger involving their mother, J.S. Cummings and colleagues (1989) found that certain response strategies were predicted by reports of recent physical and verbal aggression witnessed between their parents.  However, they did not assess how long the children had been experiencing conflict in the home.  It is possible that children who have been witnesses of chronic conflict might exhibit different, and perhaps more maladaptive, response strategies than children who have witnessed less prolonged conflict.  Little is known about the cumulative effects of exposure to conflict and consequent child reactivity. 

Although direct relations between interparental conflict, child reactivity, and behavior problems are hypothesized in the emotional security model, only one study has found significant relations among these three constructs.  Cummings and Davies (1998) demonstrated direct, cross-sectional associations among destructive parental conflict, child reactivity when exposed to an interadult conflict paradigm (as reflected by observed vigilance, distress, and hostility), and children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problems in a sample of 6 to 9 year-old children.  Structural equation modeling supported their hypothesis that emotional reactivity partially mediated the relation between conflict and child adjustment.  The mediational model was more strongly predictive of children’s internalizing symptoms than externalizing problems. 

However, other studies have shown mixed results.  O’Brien, Margolin, and John (1995) investigated the relations among preadolescent children’s reports of the frequency and intensity of interparental conflict they witnessed, their coping strategies, and symptoms of behavior problems.  They found that while children’s ratings of marital conflict were not significantly correlated with child coping strategies, self-reported coping responses were significantly related to behavior problems. 

Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that hypothesized patterns among interparental conflict, emotional reactivity, and child adjustment may vary across different contexts.  For example, Cummings and colleagues (1994b) found that physically abused boys from low-income families exhibited higher frequencies of certain types of reactions to interadult anger (i.e., coping, aggression) than nonabused boys.  In this small sample, physical abuse status contributed to the prediction of reactivity above and beyond that of concurrent interspousal conflict.  Therefore, it is possible that experiencing more chronic and violent interparental conflict may affect children’s proneness to distress when exposed to anger.  An extensive history of interparental conflict and proneness to reactivity in response to conflict may interact in a synergistic way to leave children vulnerable for the development of behavior problems.  For example, a child who has witnessed extensive aggression and violence between his parents and exhibits high levels of distress or maladaptive coping responses to threatening stimuli may be more likely to show elevated levels of behavior problems than a child who experiences only one of these risk factors (e.g., high interparental conflict but low reactivity).  For children who are more likely to be exposed to many other risk factors (e.g., depression, poor parent-child relations, dangerous neighborhood environments), such as those from low-income backgrounds (McLoyd, 1990; Furstenberg, 1993), perhaps being exposed to interparental conflict or being prone to exhibit distress and poor coping response alone does not result in behavior problems.  Alternatively, perhaps in the context of poverty, interparental conflict is relatively less salient because it is one of several challenges to the child’s psychological and/or physical well-being on a daily basis (e.g., harsh parenting; Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg, 1987).

In sum, the data suggest that children’s emotional and behavioral reactions to interparental conflict are often related to dimensions of interparental discord and child behavior problems.  However, the validity of this model is yet to be established in longitudinal studies using at-risk children.  The aim of this study is to examine the longitudinal relations among interparental conflict, children’s responses to interadult anger, and child behavior problems in a low-income sample of preschool boys.  As hypothesized by Davies and Cummings (1994), it was expected that destructive interparental conflict, children’s reactivity to interadult anger, and child behavior problems would be positively associated.  Interparental conflict was assessed at ages 2 and 3-1/2, emotional reactivity and behavioral response to interadult conflict was assessed at age 3-1/2, and internalizing and externalizing behavior problem scores were assessed by maternal report at age 3-1/2, and by both mothers and fathers at age 5.  In order to explore potential differences in these relations, two additional questions were examined.  First, was chronic and persistent interparental conflict over the preschool years predictive of child emotional reactivity to anger and/or adjustment problems?  Second, did reactivity moderate relations between conflict and behavior problems (i.e., interact to account for variance in behavior problems, above and beyond that explained by their direct effects)?



 Subjects were recruited from Women, Infant, and Children Nutritional Supplement Program (WIC) clinics in the metropolitan Pittsburgh area.  The WIC program provides financial and nutritional resources to low-income families.  Mothers with young boys between 6 and 17 months of age and another sibling living at home were asked to participate in a longitudinal study examining the development of behavior problems in young children (Shaw, Winslow, Owens, & Hood, 1998).  Participants in this study included a subset of the 310 sample participants, 129 participants who lived in two-parent families throughout the data collection period.  The sample was restricted to two-parent families in order to increase the homogeneity of family structure and to allow for comparison with previous studies (J.S. Cummings et al., 1989; Cummings et al., 1994b), and to those with complete data across the three assessments.  Thus, the sample was comprised of families in which the mothers were married or lived with a partner and completed the ages 2 and 3-1/2 assessments, and for which at least one report of the child’s behavioral adjustment at age 5 was available.  The sample primarily consisted of Caucasian and African-American families (77% and 20%, respectively, 3% other).  At the age 2 visit, mothers’ and fathers’ average educational level was 12.6 years, and the mean family income for the subsample was $1360 per month.  At recruitment, the per capita income for the entire sample was $2892 (approximately $11, 616 per year for a family of four).  This amount was well below national poverty level standards (i.e., $13,924 for a family of four; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991).  Families that were included in the present analyses differed from those not included on a few demographic characteristics; they had significantly higher socioeconomic status scores and were more likely to be European American than African American.   


The age 2 assessment was comprised of two parts.  The first part took place in the family’s home, during which mothers completed questionnaires.  Mothers and their sons were then escorted to the laboratory, whereupon mothers completed additional questionnaires.  The age 3-1/2 assessment consisted of one laboratory visit.  It began with the mother and examiner completing questionnaires while the target child played with a set of toys.  As part of both the age 2 and 3-1/2 assessments, the mother and son were asked to perform various structured tasks.  Of these, one is of interest in the present study.  At the age 3-1/2 session, as he played with a set of toys, the target child was exposed to experimental manipulations of background friendly, angry, and apologetic interactions involving the examiner and his mother (J.S. Cummings et al., 1989).  Both laboratory assessments were videotaped through a one-way mirror.

At the age 5 assessment, each mother was interviewed about her child’s behavior in the home, and whenever possible, a second assessment involving the father and/or alternate caregiver was carried out approximately two weeks later.  For some subjects for whom second assessments were not possible, fathers completed questionnaires sent by mail.  Attrition for the entire sample from ages 2 to 5 was low, with some data available on 95.2% of the sample at the 5 year assessment.  Data were available from the husband or partner living in the home for 97 of the 129 two-parent families (75%). 



Hollingshead Four Factor Index of Social Status (Hollingshead, 1975).  Mothers provided information about their own and their partner’s educational level and employment at the age 2 assessment.  The Hollingshead index is widely used, and allows for calculation of socioeconomic status scores for both one- and two-parent families.  The index has been shown to be highly correlated with an occupation index designed by the National Opinion Research Center (r=.92).      

Child-Rearing Disagreements Scale (CRDS) (Jouriles et al., 1991).  The CRDS consists of 30 items regarding child-rearing issues about which caregivers commonly disagree.  This questionnaire was administered when the child was 2 years old.  Caregivers indicate how often they have disagreed about each issue in the past 6 months, as well as how often the child witnessed those disagreements.  The measure results in two scores: overall frequency of disagreements between caregivers, and frequency of child-witnessed disagreements.  In order to strengthen the construct and because the two scores were highly intercorrelated (r=.89), the sum of the frequency and exposure scores were used.  The CRDS demonstrates high reliability, correlates significantly with other measures of marital functioning, and has been found to account for unique variance in child problem behavior after accounting for the general marital satisfaction (Jouriles et al., 1991).  Cronbach’s alpha for the CRDS is .86 (Jouriles et al., 1991).

Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS-Form N) (Straus, 1979).  The CTS assesses the use of verbal reasoning, verbal aggression, and violence within the family.  This questionnaire was administered at the age 3-1/2 visit.  The CTS consists of 26 items, which measure the frequency of conflict resolution tactics used by partners over the past year.  For each item, the subject also reports how often the child witnesses the behavior.  Although the CTS yields several factors, verbal and physical aggression are the factors most consistently related to behavior problems (Fantuzzo et al., 1991) and have been shown to be associated with child responses to conflict (J. S. Cummings et al., 1989; E. M. Cummings et al., 1994b).  Thus, to better capture the level of verbal and physical aggression, we used the sum of four factor scores: Frequency and Exposure to Verbal Aggression and Physical Aggression.  These factors were moderately to highly intercorrelated (r’s ranged from .37 to .83).  The CTS is widely used and has been demonstrated to have adequate reliability and validity.  The alpha coefficients for the Verbal and Physical Aggression subscales are high (ranging from .77 - .88) in large nationally represented samples (Straus, 1979; Straus, 1991).  

Child Behavior Checklist for Ages 2-3 and 4-11 (CBCL) (Achenbach, 1991; 1992).  The CBCL for ages 2-3 (consisting of 108 items) and for ages 4-11 (consisting of 112 items) assesses behavioral and emotional problems in young children.  The age 2-3 CBCL was completed by the mother at the age 3-1/2 assessment, and the age 4-11 version was completed by caregivers at the 5 year assessment.  Two broad-band factors, Internalizing and Externalizing problems, are derived from the measure, and were utilized in the present study.  Both factors show high validity and reliability (see Achenbach, McConaughy, & Howell, 1987, for a review).

Behavioral Observation

Anger Exposure Paradigm (J.S. Cummings et al., 1989).  This measure involves exposing the child to experimentally-manipulated background emotions.  At the age 3-1/2 visit, a 15-minute version of the paradigm was used in which the child witnessed three types of live interactions between his mother and the examiner: friendly, angry, and apologetic.  Mothers were used as confederates in the procedure.  During the interaction, the child had access to various toys (e.g., Bobo doll, medical kit, animals).  The three emotion simulation periods lasted 1½-minutes.  Each simulation period was followed by a 3-minute interval in which the examiner was not in the room.  The examiner and mother amiably discussed instructions for questionnaires during the first simulation.  During the second simulation, the examiner entered the room and became verbally angry at the mother, accusing the mother of being late to the session and forgetting to complete questionnaires.  Mothers were instructed not to respond and not to laugh during the anger simulation.  After 3 minutes, the examiner re-entered the room for the third simulation and apologized for becoming angry.  During the intervals in which the examiner was not in the room, mothers were instructed to respond naturally to their child, but were asked to not initiate interaction.  Interactions were videotaped for later coding.

Children’s responses to the background emotion simulations were coded by the first author and two trained research assistants who were blind to the child’s parental status and behavior problem scores.   Consultation on behavioral codes was provided by E. Mark Cummings.  As in previous research (see J.S. Cummings et al., 1989; Cummings et al., 1994b), data were grouped for analysis into three 4 ½-minute periods:  friendly, angry, and resolution.  Each period consisted of nine 30-second intervals, for which the presence or absence of 19 observable behaviors was coded (e.g., observing interaction, expressing concern about conflict, crying).  Seventeen of these behavioral codes directly correspond to those observed in the study by J. S. Cummings and colleagues (1989).  Two additional behaviors were coded (interrupting the interaction and object aggression) based on the findings of E. M. Cummings and colleagues (Cummings et al., 1994b) and the suggestion of Dr. Cummings.  The scheme of one-zero coding for each period was chosen due to the relatively brief periods, infrequency of behaviors observed within each period, and for comparability to the previously mentioned studies.  The frequencies of these coping behaviors during the angry period were summed and collapsed into four specific a priori sub-factors based on previous research and consultation with Dr. Cummings -- preoccupation with conflict, active concern, intervention, and aggression (Cummings et al., 1994b; J.S. Cummings et al., 1989; O’Brien et al., 1995).  Twenty-three percent of the larger sample, or 30 tapes, were rated by two or more independent observers in order to determine interrater reliability.  The overall Cohen’s kappa coefficient, computed based on the overall rates of agreements on occurrence, agreements on nonoccurrence, and disagreements (occurrence/ nonoccurrence; nonoccurrence/occurrence), equaled .82.  Kappas for each individual code across all periods attained “fair” to “good” levels, ranging from .48 to 1.00 (Bakeman & Gottman, 1987; J. S. Cummings et al., 1989).  In addition, confirmatory factor analyses were performed to ascertain that the present factors were appropriate, discriminating, and consistent with other research.  The factor analyses were supportive of the current factor structure (behavioral codes exhibited loadings of at least .3 or higher on designated factors).

In order to demonstrate that the angry interaction was emotionally distressing to the children, comparisons of means of each factor score across the three periods were conducted with ANOVAs.  For three of the four factors (i.e., preoccupation/distress, active concern, and aggression), means were higher in the angry period than the resolution period.  However, only two of the four factors demonstrated significantly higher means in the angry versus the friendly and resolution periods: preoccupation with conflict and active concern (F = 15.33, p < .001; and F = 4.38; p < .01, respectively, both significantly different from other periods at the p < .05 level using Tukey’s HSD).  Thus, these two factor scores were used to examine differences in types of coping in the following analyses (See Table 1 for description of factors).  Children who were hypervigilant but not verbally expressive in their reactions had higher scores on the preoccupation/distress factor, while those children who were more verbally dysregulated and sought out attention from their mother had the highest scores on the active concern factor.  One code, expressing concern about the questionnaires, did not occur across any period within the subsample, and another code, comforting mother physically, did not distinguish across periods.  Thus, these codes, along with the intervention factor, were not included in analyses. 


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Results are presented in four stages: (1) descriptive statistics for the independent and dependent measures, (2) direct relations among parental conflict, observed emotional and behavioral response to conflict, and behavior problems, (3) the effects of persistence of interparental conflict on child emotional reactivity and behavior problems, and (4) mediating and moderating (interactive) effects of interparental conflict and child emotional and behavioral response on child adjustment.

Descriptive statistics for ratings of interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3-1/2, observed emotional and behavioral factors from the anger paradigm at age 3-1/2, and mother- and father-rated behavior problem scores at ages 3-1/2 and 5 are presented in Table 2.   On a few measures which have been used in prior research, subjects’ scores differed from the normative samples.  The average scores for Verbal and Physical Aggression on the CTS at age 3-1/2 were at the 80th  and 90th percentiles, respectively (Straus, 1979).  Approximately half (52%) of the subsample reported some physically aggressive behavior between partners.  In addition, mother- and father-ratings of externalizing behavior problems at age 5 were .4 to .6 standard deviations higher than the national average.  Additionally, the sample’s average socioeconomic status was low (i.e., semi-skilled workers; Hollingshead, 1975).   These scores reflect the presence of significant risk factors for behavior problems in this sample.  Subjects’ scores on other measures fell within the normative range.


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Relations between interparental conflict, child reactivity to observed conflict, and child adjustment

Pearson Correlation Coefficients were used to test the hypothesis that interparental conflict scores at ages 2 and 3-1/2, child reactions to observed conflict at age 3-1/2, and child adjustment problems at ages 3-1/2 and 5 would be positively related.  Table 3 summarizes these correlations.  Relations among predictor and child outcome factors and SES were also computed to test for “third variable” effects; however, no significant relations with SES emerged.  Age 2 and age 3-1/2 interparental conflict scores were associated (r=.43, p < .01), suggesting moderate stability across the 1-1/2 year period.  Both age 2 and age 3-1/2 conflict scores were positively correlated with ratings of concurrent and later behavior problems, ranging from .10 to .30 (11 of the 12 correlations were significant at at least the p < .05 level).  Overall, reactivity to conflict was not related to ratings of interparental conflict (correlations ranged from -.14 to .11, all ns).  Reactivity to conflict was also not consistently related to ratings of behavior problems.


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Effects of Persistence of Parental Conflict on Child Adjustment and Reactivity

The hypothesis that associations between conflict and adjustment problems would be greater for those subjects who had experienced a longer history of, and high levels of parental discord was explored next.  A series of hierarchical regressions was performed in which child behavior problems at ages 3-1/2 and 5 were predicted by entering the age 2 and age 3-1/2 conflict scores individually and then their interaction term.  After entry of main effects, interaction terms of the two conflict measures contributed significantly to mother’s ratings of internalizing (multiple R = .34; R2 = .11; R2 change = .05, p < .01) and externalizing (multiple R = .33, R2 = .11, R2 change = .05, p < .01) behavior problems at age 3-1/2.  Likewise, significant interactive effects of the parental conflict measures were demonstrated for maternal ratings of internalizing (multiple R = .41; R2 = .17, R2 change = .07, p < .01) and externalizing (multiple R = .42, R2 = .17, R2 change = .06, p < .01) behavior problems at age 5. 

In follow-up analyses, patterns of interaction effects were examined using a method described by Aiken and West (1991).  To examine the interaction between interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3.5, each behavior problem score was regressed on parental conflict at age 2, at 1 standard deviation above and below the mean of parental conflict at age 3.5.  The resulting simple slopes were then plotted at 1 standard deviation above and below the mean of interparental conflict at age 2.  These analyses resulted in similar patterns for internalizing and externalizing behavior problems at ages 3-1/2 and 5.  Figure 1 demonstrates the interactive effects of parental conflict on externalizing problems at age 5, which indicates that behavior problem scores were lower only for those children experiencing low levels of interparental conflict at both age 2 and age 3-1/2, t = 3.30, p < .01.  At high levels of parental conflict at age 3-1/2, changes in behavior problem scores were nonsignificant, t = -.25, ns.  The size of the difference in externalizing behavior problem scores between low and high interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3-1/2 was about .7 standard deviations.  Follow-up tests for internalizing problems at age 3-1/2 and age 5 and externalizing problems at age 3-1/2 (not shown here) demonstrated comparable findings -- those children with low parental conflict scores at both time points had significantly lower behavior problem scores than those experiencing high conflict at one or both time points.   While main effects of interparental conflict at age 2 and/or age 3-1/2 on father’s CBCL ratings at age 5 were significant, interaction effects were not.    

As with the hypothesized relations between persistence of conflict and behavior problems, it was expected that associations between emotional and behavioral reactivity to exposure to conflict and interparental conflict would be greater for those experiencing more persistent conflict.  This hypothesis was tested using the method described above.  First, a series of regressions were computed in which the two reactivity factors, preoccupation with conflict and active concern, were predicted by entering the conflict scores at age 2 and age 3-1/2 individually, and finally, entering their interaction term into hierarchical regressions.  Neither reactivity factor was predicted by the independent variables and no interactions between the two conflict scores predicted significant variance above and beyond that already accounted for by the other variables. 

Interactive Effects of Parental Conflict and Child Reactivity on Child Adjustment

Based on previous research (Cummings, Zahn-Waxler, & Radke-Yarrow, 1981; 1998), it was expected that reactivity to conflict would mediate the relations between conflict and child behavior problems, both concurrently and longitudinally.  However, the mediating hypothesis could not be tested because no positive associations between reactivity to the anger exposure procedure and interparental conflict were found, and only a few weak associations between aggression (which did not discriminate across simulation periods) and mother-rated externalizing behavior problems were evident (Baron & Kenny, 1986).  Nonetheless, a theoretically-based hypothesis regarding the potential interactive (i.e., moderating) effects of reactivity and interparental conflict in predicting behavior problems was investigated.  Hierarchical regressions were computed in which mother’s and father’s reports (examined separately) of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems at ages 3-1/2 and 5 were predicted by entering first the individual interparental conflict scores at age 2 and age 3-1/2, then the reactivity factor score (e.g., preoccupation/distress or active concern), then each of the resulting two-way interaction terms, and lastly, the three-way interaction.             

The most robust findings were demonstrated for those regressions utilizing the active concern factor in predicting maternal ratings of externalizing problems (see Table 4).  Main effects for parental conflict at age 2 were demonstrated for both behavior problems at age 3-1/2 (R=.22, R2 change=.04, p < .05) and age 5 (R=.27, R2 change =.07, p < .01), and for age 3-1/2 parental conflict on externalizing problems at age 5 (R=.33, R2 change=.04, p < .05).  Main effects for the active concern factor were not significant when entered following the conflict scores at ages 2 and 3-1/2.  The interaction between conflict at age 2 and age 3-1/2 contributed significant variance to the prediction of externalizing problems at age 3-1/2 (R=.36, R2 change=.04, p < .05) and age 5 (R=.42, R2 change=.18, p < .01).  When added last, the three-way interaction between interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3-1/2 and active concern contributed unique variance to ratings of externalizing problems at age 3-1/2, but not at age 5.  Similar patterns for maternal ratings of internalizing problems were demonstrated:  significant main effects for interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3-1/2, significant interactive effects for interparental conflict at two time points for predicting both age 3-1/2 and age 5 internalizing problems, and a significant three-way interactive effect for internalizing problems at 3-1/2.


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To understand the nature of these effects, follow-up simple slope analyses were computed as described above.  In order to ensure that the extreme values in the simple slope analyses represented adequate numbers of children, significant effects were detected and plotted at .75 standard deviations above and below predictor mean values (Aiken & West, 1991).  The pattern of the interaction is depicted in Figure 2.  A test of the significance of the slopes indicated that as levels of parental conflict at age 2 increased, ratings of externalizing problems increased for children who exhibited high active concern and experienced low parental conflict at age 3-1/2, t = 2.71, p < .01.  The lowest score was demonstrated by the children who were low on parental conflict at age 3-1/2 and exhibited less active concern, with increasing levels of parental conflict at age 2 associated with higher externalizing scores, t =1.84, p < .10.   Other slopes were not significantly different from zero.  These effects were similar for internalizing problems.  The pattern suggests that experiencing either interparental conflict at age 2 or at age 3-1/2 and exhibiting high active concern at age 3-1/2 or interparental conflict at both time points regardless of reactivity, increases vulnerability for behavior problems.  Children who experienced low levels of interparental conflict at both age 2 and age 3-1/2 had the lowest externalizing scores.  The results are consistent with a multiplicative-effects model; the presence of two of the three risk factors (high interparental conflict at age 2, age 3-1/2, or high reactivity) predicted greater problem scores than having one risk factor alone.


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Regression analyses of interactive effects of interparental conflict and active concern on paternal ratings of behavior problems at age 5 showed both similarities and differences to maternal ratings.  For both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, main effects of interparental conflict at age 2 were demonstrated (R=.22, R2=.05, R2 change = .05, p < .05 for internalizing scores; R=.29, R2=.08, R2 change=.08, p < .01 for externalizing scores).  In addition, the interaction between interparental conflict at age 3-1/2 and active concern accounted for a significant amount of variance in internalizing problems (R=.33, R2 = .11, R2 change=.05, p < .05) and a trend level amount of variance in externalizing problems (R=.41, R2=.17, R2 change=.03, p < .10).  Simple slope analyses of these effects showed that experiencing both high interparental conflict at age 3-1/2 and high active concern in response to the anger paradigm elevated the risk for paternal ratings of behavior problems at age 5 (the predicted score for this configuration was approximately .5 standard deviation larger than the next highest score). 

As with active concern, significant main and interactive effects for the interparental conflict scores were found in analyses utilizing the preoccupation/distress factor and interparental conflict scores in predicting maternal and paternal ratings of behavior problems.  Surprisingly, the preoccupation/distress factor did not contribute unique variance, and no two-way or the three-way interaction terms involving the preoccupation/distress factor were significant.




The aim of the present study was to examine the longitudinal relations among interparental conflict, emotional and behavioral reactions to conflict, and the development of behavior problems in preschool-age, at-risk children.  As expected, rates of interparental conflict were positively related to both concurrent and later behavior problems, according to ratings of child behavior by mothers and fathers among two-parent families.  The strength of the relations was consistent with concurrent relations reported for other smaller, preschool-age samples (Fantuzzo et al., 1991; Jouriles, Pfiffner, & O’Leary, 1988) and for samples of older children and adolescents (Cummings & Davies, 1998; Jenkins & Smith, 1991; Rossman & Rosenberg; 1992).  Additionally, patterns of parental conflict over time had important effects in predicting child adjustment; although a different pattern than expected emerged.  Analyses indicated a significant decrease in behavior problems as a function of the level of conflict, with those experiencing the least persistent conflict having the lowest rates of mother-reported behavior problems at age 3-½ and 5.  A pattern of high conflict at one or both time points did result in elevated problem scores (generally about .5 standard deviations higher than normative samples), but these differences were not statistically significant.  These findings are important because they suggest a protective effect of low levels of conflict over time not previously documented for preschool-age children (Strassberg, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1992).  Thus, this study supports the notion that children exposed to interparental conflict in the early years of life are negatively affected by it, and suggests that low levels of conflict may protect against later behavior problems.           

This study also attempted to replicate previous findings documenting direct positive associations between interparental conflict and children’s reactions to observed anger in two-parent families (Cummings et al., 1985; Cummings & Davies, 1998; J.S. Cummings et al., 1989; Davies & Cummings, 1994).  Hypotheses based on an emotional-security model were tested, in which children’s reactivity to conflict was expected to mediate the relation between conflict and concurrent and later child adjustment (Davies & Cummings, 1994).  While significant concurrent and longitudinal relations were observed between rates of interparental conflict and behavior problems, direct relations between children’s emotional and behavioral response to conflict and these two variables were not consistently found.  Thus, the mediating hypothesis could not be tested. 

The predominantly null findings regarding direct relations among children’s emotional and behavioral reactivity, interparental conflict, and child adjustment were surprising.  Children from low-income families were reactive when exposed to interadult conflict involving their mothers, and their responses were similar to patterns found in other two-parent, middle-class samples (Cummings & Davies, 1998; J.S. Cummings et al., 1989).  In the present study, emotional and behavioral response to conflict was not related to reported history of interparental conflict or child behavior problems, as found in numerous investigations (Cummings et al., 1981; Cummings, Ballard, & El-Sheikh, 1991; J.S. Cummings et al., 1989; Cummings & Davies, 1998).  Furthermore, more persistent and severe conflict was not predictive of children’s reactivity.  The lack of significant correlations between reactivity and child adjustment is equally surprising.  Although previously untested in preschool-age children, theoretical arguments based on Davies’ and Cummings’ emotional-security hypothesis (1994) and research with older samples suggested that emotional and behavioral response to anger would be positively related to behavior problems.  In the present investigation, however, significant positive relations did not emerge between preoccupation/distress and active concern and behavior problems, despite the relatively large sample size, and the great variability in conflict scores.

            Even though the mediating hypothesis could not be tested, the possibility that reactivity adds to or moderates the relation between interparental conflict and behavior problems was investigated.  This hypothesis was supported for analyses involving active concern.  Active concern interacted with conflict history to predict maternal ratings of externalizing and internalizing problems at age 3-1/2.  Additionally, interactions with the active concern factor and interparental conflict at age 3-1/2 predicted paternal ratings  of internalizing and externalizing problems at age 5.  Patterns of interactive effects generally demonstrated a cumulative risk pattern.  Follow-up analyses suggested that greater reactivity to conflict increased the risk for elevated behavior problems when children experienced either high levels of interparental conflict at age 2 or age 3-1/2.  Verbal and physical aggression appeared to have a more consistent effect on behavior problems than child rearing disagreements, in that for those children experiencing high levels of parental conflict at age 3-1/2, cross-sectional maternal externalizing and internalizing scores were above normative averages regardless of other factors (see Figure 2).  However, the pattern of higher scores on child rearing disagreements, in the context of low interparental aggression and greater active concern in response to conflict, also resulted in externalizing problems that approached the clinical range.  

The present results are consistent with the idea that emotional and behavioral reactivity is a meaningful contributor to risk for the development of behavior problems.  In addition, this study extended the testing of this model to a group of families at risk for child adjustment problems, which has been highlighted as crucial to the establishment Cummings’ and Davies’ emotional-security model (1998).  However, patterns among interparental conflict, emotional and behavioral reactivity, and child adjustment were different than found in other samples.  Emotional reactivity appeared to moderate, rather than mediate, the relation between interparental discord and externalizing and internalizing behavior problems.  Given the strong theoretical and empirical background of the emotional security model, why would reactivity demonstrate different patterns for low-income families? 

One possible explanation for the pattern involves the measurement of emotional security.  Cummings’ and Davies’ (1994) model posits that there are three components involved: emotional and behavioral reactivity to conflict, internal representations of parental relationships and conflict management, and children’s regulation of exposure and involvement in stressful parental interactions.  In their recent examination of this model in older children (Cummings & Davies, 1998), internal representations of conflict, as measured in responses to videotaped conflict vignettes, were positively related to interparental discord and internalizing problems, while regulation of exposure (e.g., intervention or avoidance in reaction to anger paradigm) was not related to either marital discord or child problems.    

In the present study, internal representations of family relations and children’s self-regulation of exposure to conflict were not assessed.  It may be that for children in high-risk environments, different factors contribute to the development of emotional security.  For example, children from low SES backgrounds who witness greater frequency and higher intensity of family conflict, may internally represent conflict in interparental relations as more threatening than children from more advantaged backgrounds, perhaps because they have learned to expect that such conflict may lead to violence toward themselves or toward a parent.  In turn, this belief of threat may lead to more behavioral self-regulation of reactivity in reaction to parental conflict for fear of retribution.  Thus, while these children may not demonstrate observable distress or reactive behaviors, psychological functioning may still be impaired through increased sensitization and/or hostile attributions, as well as maladaptive behavior in other contexts (Dodge, 1986).  It is still possible that for children from high-risk environments, internal representations and self-regulation of exposure to parental affect may exist, while behavioral reactivity may play a less salient or indirect role, as it did in this investigation.  To examine this possibility, it would have been interesting to collect physiological data (e.g., heart rate, vagal tone, cortisol levels) on the children during the anger exposure paradigm in order to evaluate internal distress.  There is evidence that a sub-sample of children are internally emotionally aroused yet exhibit few external behaviors (Raine, 1993).  

Cummings and Davies (1998) have also posited that the strongest influence on children’s emotional security and subsequent behavior problems is the behavioral and affective quality of the interparental relationship.  Interparental conflict may be the most significant factor for middle-class families, but perhaps not for families facing more adverse circumstances.  Parental conflict may have more of a direct influence on children’s adjustment in more advantaged families because it stands out as a risk factor in an environment that is otherwise relatively stable and predictable.  The same could not be said for children who live in poverty, for whom their family, their neighborhoods, and schools present daily challenges to development (Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg, 1987).  For families from disadvantaged backgrounds, perhaps the quality of interparental relations may be relatively less salient to children’s emotional security or to the development of behavior problems.  Cummings and Davies have hypothesized that emotional security can be compromised by problems in attachment relations with caregivers or perturbations in children’s relationships with parents or siblings.  Insecure attachment status and poor maternal responsiveness have been shown to predict later adjustment problems, particularly for low-income families (Erikson, Sroufe, & Egeland, 1985; Shaw & Vondra, 1993; Shaw et al., 1998).  However, these variables have not been examined together with interparental conflict in order to determine individual and/or interactive effects on the development of emotional security and behavior problems.

Relatedly, Fincham, Grych, and Osborne (1994) have sugggested that there are multiple pathways by which conflict may affect later problem behavior.  Hypotheses other than the emotional-security model have been investigated.  Parental modeling (Belsky, 1984; Patterson et al., 1989), parenting practices (Fauber, Forehand, Thomas, & Wierson, 1990), and children’s cognitive appraisals of conflict (Grych & Fincham, 1990, 1995; O’Brien, Margolin, John, & Krueger, 1991) are mechanisms that have been proposed to mediate the relation between interparental conflict and child adjustment.  Although these models have been examined in pre-adolescent and older children with some positive results, they are generally not developmentally based, and so may have limited utility with young children.  Efforts are currently underway to adapt and test these models in younger children, which should greatly inform this area of research (Fincham, 1994).

The present study has some limitations.  The specific high-risk and gender status of the sample, while providing a robust test of emotional-security theory, limits generalizability to other samples.  Different instruments were used to assess interparental conflict at each time point, and were reported using a single informant.  Additional measurements and informants of marital conflict might provide different and important information.  The reliance on questionnaire data for assessment of parental conflict and behavior problems introduces the possibility of shared-method effects.  These effects are tempered, however, by the longitudinal design and multiple informants of child problem behavior.  Furthermore, emotional and behavioral reactivity was measured in one way at one assessment.  Utilizing other complementary techniques of assessing emotion regulation and reactivity in conjunction with the anger exposure paradigm at different ages (e.g., internal representations, self-regulation of exposure to conflict) could contribute to our understanding of the relations among these three constructs, and improve the generalizability of the findings.    

Finally, the results of this study suggest that more research is needed in the measurement of emotional and behavioral reactivity, and the relations reactivity may have with interparental conflict and the development of behavior problems in preschoolers.  The present study improved upon previous research by utilizing longitudinal data and multiple informants in a large sample of young children.  Although much research with low-risk populations suggest that emotional-security partially mediates the relation between interparental discord and behavior problems, the present data do not strongly support this model, at least for low-income families.  These results are consistent with the hypothesis that emotional security is an important factor in the development of behavior problems.  However, many questions remain about the validity of the emotional-security mechanism, including: Is this model appropriate for high-risk environments in which there is exposure to many different within- and external family stressors, and are there other mechanisms which may provide a better fit of the data?  Further investigations into children’s experience of, and methods in dealing with conflict between caregivers in diverse situations may address these issues.



This study was supported by Grant Number 50907 from the National Institute of Mental Health to the second author.  We would like to thank E. M. Cummings for his consultation and helpful suggestions.  We wish to extend our appreciation to study participants for letting us watch and learn about family development.




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Table 1

Frequency of Behavioral Responses During the Three Emotion Simulation Periods



Factors:                                                     Friendly                    Angry                           Resolution




Observing the interaction                    0                          59                     29

Decrease in play                                0                          18                     13

Disruption in play                               0                          41                     23

Freezing                                            0                          1                     0

Distress in face                                  0                          6                     9

Gestural distress                                4                          4                     12

Shutting out                                       0                          0                     1

Crying                                               0                          1                     4



Subtotal                                            4  (1.6%)              130  (45.7%)     91 (27.9%)


Active Concern


Expressing concern about conflict        0                          68                     16

Expressing concern about leaving         0                          10                     4

Gets comfort from mother                  5                          17                     22            


Subtotal                                            5  (3.1%)               95  (35.6%)       42  (16.2%)





NOTE: -- Percentages of children showing responses are given in parentheses.







Table 2

Descriptive Statistics for Study Variables



Variable                                                             N                      Mean            S. D.         Range


SES                                                                  128                   3.7               .80            (2.00 - 5.00)


Interparental Conflict


   Child Rearing Disagreements

Freq. + Exp. Comp.  - Age 2                   129                   43.78            31.47         (0.00 - 128.00)


   Conflict Tactics Scale

Verb. + Phys. Aggr. - Age 3-1/2              129                   22.13            15.17         (0.00 - 88.00)

Freq. + Exp. Comp.


Emotional/Behavioral Reactivity - Age 3-1/2


   Preoccupation with Conflict Factor                   129                   1.00             1.55          (0.00 - 11.00)


   Active Concern Factor                                     129                   .73               1.36          (0.00 - 6.00)



CBCL Behavior Problem T-Scores


   Maternal Ratings


Intern.  - Age 3-1/2                                128                   51.68            8.17          (29 - 75)


Extern. - Age 3-1/2                                 128                   51.34            9.08          (30 - 69)


Intern.  - Age 5                                      123                   52.89            9.04          (34 - 73)


Extern. - Age 5                                      132                   54.33            10.91         (30 - 79)


    Paternal Ratings


Intern.  - Age 5                                      97                     55.02            10.10         (33 - 73)


Extern. - Age 5                                      97                     56.12            10.90         (30 - 83)










Table 3

Relations Among Dependent and Independent Variables


1.                  2.         3.         4.         5.         6.        7.           8.         9.         10.                  



Interparental Conflict

1. Age 2 CRDS Comp.            --         .43**   .01       -.11      .10       .22*    .21*       .27**   .22*     .29**  


2. Age 3.5 CTS Comp.            --         --         .02       .05       .26**   .21*    .29**     .30**   .21*     .20*    



3. Preoccupation/Distress         --         --         --         .34**   .11       .03      .07         .02       .02       -.09


4. Active Concern                    --         --         --         --         .04       -.11    -.03       -.07      -.05      -.14


Behavior Problems-CBCL

Maternal Ratings

5.  Age 3.5 Internalizing            --         --         --         --         --         .56**  .39**     .30**   .22*     .18+


6.  Age 3.5 Externalizing           --         --         --         --         --         --        .35**     .62**   .18+     .39**


7.  Age 5 Internalizing               --         --         --         --         --         --        --           .72**   .40**   .37**


8.  Age 5 Externalizing              --         --         --         --         --         --        --           --         .31**   .49**


Paternal Ratings

9. Age 5 Internalizing                --         --         --         --         --         --        --           --         --         .71**


10.  Age 5 Externalizing            --         --         --         --         --         --        --           --         --         --



+p < .10, *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001; two-tailed significance






Table 4


Predicting Mother-Rated Behavior Problems:


The Interactive Effects of Conflict and Emotional and Behavioral Reactivity from Ages 2 to 5


  Externalizing Problems - 3-1/2 yrs         Externalizing Problems - 5 yrs



Predictor Variables              Mult R   R2      R2Ch.      F Ch.              Mult. R  R2    R2Ch.       F Ch.     


Step 1:  Parental Conflict    .22           .04       .04        6.54*           .27       .07        .07     9.55**

CRD - Age 2


Step 2:  Parental Conflict    .25           .06       .01     2.19                .33       .11        .04      5.49*

CTS - Age 3-1/2


Step 3:  Active Concern      .27           .07       .01       1.59               .34       .11        .00    .70

Age 3-1/2


Step 4:  CRD X CTS         .35           .12       .05      7.00**            .42       .18        .06      9.22**


Step 5:  CRD X                  .35           .12       .00        .03               .42       .18        .00     .17

Active Concern


Step 6:  CTS  X                 .36           .13       .00      .36                  .43       .19        .00      .91

Active Concern


Step 7:  CRD X CTS         .40           .16       .03     4.33*              .44       .19        .00      .93

 X Active Concern


Overall F = 3.27, p < .01                     Overall F = 4.03, p < .001




+p < .10, *p < .05, **p < .01





Figure Captions


Figure 1.  Interactive effects of interparental conflict at age 2 and age 3-1/2 on maternal ratings of externalizing problems at age 5.


Figure 2.  Interactive effects of interparental conflict at ages 2 and 3-1/2 and emotional reactivity at

age 3-1/2 on maternal ratings of externalizing problems at age 3-1/2.