Introduction: Social workers work with families with young children in a range of contexts. Marital conflict and child behavior problems are issues frequently addressed by social workers. Marital conflict is well established as a precursor to children’s problem behaviors (Cummings & Davies, 2011). Use of destructive conflict behaviors, in particular, has been associated with children’s problem behaviors, while constructive conflict has been posited to mitigate the effects of marital conflict on children (Cummings & Davies, 2010). However, less is known about the effects of destructive and constructive conflict behaviors when considered together (Davies, Martin, & Cicchetti, 2012). This study examines effects of destructive and constructive conflict behaviors simultaneously on child behaviors. This study is also novel in that it includes perceptions of marital conflict from both mothers and fathers.
Methods: Data from 5,102 families surveyed in the Building Strong Families project were used in this study. Participants were unmarried couples who had recently had a child or were expecting a child and agreed to participate in a relationship strengthening intervention at one of 8 programs across the U.S. Respondents were predominantly low-income and racially diverse. Longitudinal analyses were conducted in Mplus with baseline control variables predicting maternal and paternal reports of destructive and constructive conflict behaviors when children were approximately 15 months old, which along with control variables predicted child problem behaviors at 36 months of age.
Results: The longitudinal path model predicting total child problem behaviors provided an excellent fit to the data (Χ2=14.3, df=10, p=.16; RMSEA=.009; CFI=1.00; SRMR=.010); models predicting internalizing and externalizing behaviors separately yielded very similar results. Mothers’ reports of destructive conflict behaviors were the strongest predictor of child behavior problems (β=.183, p=.004). Interestingly, fathers’ reports of destructive conflict behaviors were not a significant predictor of child problem behaviors. Constructive conflict behaviors, whether reported by mothers or fathers, did not have a positive or negative impact on child problem behaviors.
Conclusions and Implications: This study expands on prior research by showing that constructive conflict behaviors do not impact young children’s behaviors positively or negatively. Furthermore, mothers’ perceptions of destructive marital conflict were predictive of child behaviors while fathers’ perceptions were not, suggesting unique processes linking each parent, marital conflict, and child behaviors. These findings are helpful to social workers working with families with young children in several ways. First, these findings guide social workers to direct their interventions to those factors most related to future problem child behaviors, namely destructive marital conflict. Secondly, these findings suggest that it is most important that mothers not perceive destructive conflict behaviors, most likely because mothers are the primary caretakers of young children. Thirdly, while constructive conflict behaviors may be a useful relationship tool, they do not appear to mitigate the effects of destructive conflict behavior; thus, interventions need to focus primarily on decreasing destructive conflict behaviors.