Changes in the home environment such as marital conflict, divorce and poor parenting can adversely affect family dynamics, and children especially, can develop both mental and physical health problems. Research finds a correlation between parental separation and the internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors in children; this includes childhood sleep problems due to marital conflict. Children can help define and influence the dynamics of marital conflict.
Studies show that in early childhood, parent-child relationships are critical to a child’s healthy development especially the mother-child relations and maternal depression can cause poor parenting leading to emotional and behavioral problems. Child maltreatment is associated with alterations in stress physiology, increased risk for emotional and behavioral issues and increased risk for mental health issues in adolescence. Positive and supportive co-parenting can buffer against the negative effects of marital conflict and divorce especially in low-income and at-risk families.
Successful co-parenting relationships can positively affect a child’s socio-emotional development and mental health. Family dynamics and changes in the home will affect the development and well-being of a child throughout infancy or adolescence. Home environments which are dysfunctional in nature, experiencing marital conflict, and separation/divorce or poor-parenting can cause problems within a child’s development including mental and physical issues.
Some children will internalize their problems and suffer from anxiety and depression. Others will outwardly externalize their behaviors through aggression and conduct problems; preteens are especially at risk for antisocial behavior (Taylor, Purswell, Lindo, Jayne, & Fernando, 2011; Sentse, Ormel, Veenstra, Verhulst, & Oldehinkel, 2011). In the Barry & Kochanska (2011, p. 237) study, they point out that dysfunctional parenting, parental depressive symptoms and marital conflict are associated with childhood adjustment and development.
Consistently, studies show that marital problems adversely affect child development and adjustment. As Rhoades, Leve, Harold, Neiderhiser, Shaw & Reiss (2011) state “the association between marital hostility and child adjustment is clearly established” and “pathways from marital hostility to child adjustment have been well studied, research[ed] to date” (p. 282).
And Teti & Cole (2011) further add that “faulty parenting is frequently cited as a major causal factor in the development of child psychopathology” (p. 25). Emotions and Family Dynamics In Barry and Kochanska (2010) study, the authors look at family emotional well-being, the critical nature of the parent-child relationship and how this impacts a child’s development. Emotions are given and received through individuals and family relationships are shaped by them; family dynamics are influenced and develop from these relational emotions. The emotional affects are multi-dimension and reach all family members reciprocally.
One approach known as transactional family dynamics looks at mutual influence processes between all family members (Schermerhorn, Chow & Cummings, 2010, p. 869). Although few studies have been conducted, the transactional family dynamic modal theorizes that if there are marital problems and conflict, the focus is not exclusively on the husband and wife’s problems, but how the family children also influence the marital relationship’s conflict.
In one rare study, it was found that “in families with high levels of marital conflict, child externalizing problems predicted increases in marital conflict” (Schermerhorn et al. , 2010, p. 869); thus supporting the reciprocal nature in families. In support of other research, results from Schermerhorn, et al. (2010) study found that if a child is negative then it is associated with less marital positivity (p. 878). Within family subsystems, the marital relationship and the parent-child relationships are directly influenced by individual emotions and their interactions with one another.
Some of these familial emotional interactions, reactions and feelings are healthy, but most are not when there is marital conflict; these unhealthy emotions create a variety of outcomes for a child’s development. Barry and Kochanska (2010) states, “In families, emotions profoundly influence mental health of the individuals, including sense of security, coping, personal growth, competence, adjustment, behavior problems, and psychopathology, including recovery and relapse” (p. 237).
The emotional development, security and socialization of a child are directly related to the emotional exchange between the parent and child relationship; in fact, Barry and Kockanska (2010) find that it is a critical dimension especially during the early childhood years (p. 238). Since emotional healthiness is critical to healthy family relationships then unhealthy emotional states can be detrimental to a developing child causing attachment issues and possible psychopathology as they develop into adulthood. Parents’ emotional reactions to children’s emotions have important consequences for social and emotional development, including children’s psycho-physiological regulation, coping, emotional understanding, and friendship quality (Barry & Kockanska, 2010, p. 237). Home Environments and Child Development Some of the variables which cause changes in the family’s home environment and affect child development are marital conflict, divorce and poor parenting; these changes can be more negatively influential in lower-income environments.
Family is one of the major components in human development; therefore, childhood development is greatly influenced by the health of the family unit and home environment. Studies have shown that marital conflict in the family will increase the risk of adjustment problems in children; additionally, marital conflicts can lead to negative parenting, such as inconsistent discipline or disengagement, putting the parent-child relationship at risk and further adding to the risk of child maladjustment (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006, p. 30; Peris, Goeke-Morey, Cummings, & Emery (2008), p. 633). Peris et al. 2008) finds that “marital conflict is linked to a host of ineffective parenting practices, ranging from the use of inconsistent discipline to diminished displays of warmth and responsivity in the parent-child relationship” (p. 633).
Another area of concern in families with marital conflict is parentification of children in which the child takes on a parental role by providing emotional support for the parent; it is a reversed role where the child takes care of the parent. In the Peris et al. study, the authors look at how parentification responsibilities can be very stressful and taxing for a middle adolescent hich can cause, as previous research shows, shame, guilt, poor academic performance, increased adulthood depression and anxiety, and difficult peer relationships of which girls are at a greater risk than boys. (Peris et al. , p. 634). Peris et al. also points out that in childhood, parentification is associated with externalizing and internalizing behaviors, and poor social adjustment; additionally, poor parenting practice such as psychological control where a parent will use guilt to control their child’s behavior and maintain closeness will put children and adolescence at greater risk to maladjustment and behavioral problems.
Additional findings from Peris et al. study show that youth and their parents perceive the parentification dynamic differently. Youth perceive the relationship as low in warmth and support but the parent perceives it as warm and close; the study also concluded that the youth study group demonstrated internalizing and externalizing behaviors (p. 638) which is consistent with their hypothesis, other empirical studies and literature topics on parentification.
Children from homes with higher levels of conflict have more adjustment problems than children from less conflictual homes especially with prolonged marital conflict (El-Sheikh & Whitson, 2006, p. 30). Marital conflict affects girls more than boys in which they have greater internalizing symptoms. El-Sheikh & Whitson (2006) explain that girls are subject to greater socialization pressures and communion especially during late childhood and adolescence; this socialization process is opposite of a boy who is pushed socially to be more independent.
Girls may also be more emotionally involved in the marital arguments and boys avoid the conflict by claiming their independence (p. 37). Nonetheless, marital conflict has lasting affects for both boys and girls which affects childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Social development is at risk in children who are from homes with marital conflict, divorce or poor parenting. Booth-LaForce & Oxford (2008) report that an unsupportive parental environment such as found in stressful environments like single-parent homes and/or low income can cause insensitive parenting which can lead to socially withdrawn behavior in children; (p. 299) many of these children who are socially withdrawn display “social-cognitive deficits and unskilled behavior, their self-perceptions are negative, they are more likely to be rejected and victimized by peers, and experience loneliness and depression” (p. 1298). Social learning theorists argue “that marital disruption may lead children to learn angry, coercive, hostile, and even physically aggressive approaches to interpersonal problem solving” (Gattis, Simpson, & Christensen, 2008, p. 833).
Another area of concern in childhood development within stressful home environments is the increase risk for stress-related physical illnesses. In a study by Fabricius & Luecken (2007) they report that “high family conflict, abuse, parental psychopathology, and divorce can serve to establish enduring dysregulations in the child’s physiological stress responses, promoting pathophysiology in the brain and body” (p. 195). Another area of concern is sleep deprivation. Marital conflict is related to disruption in a child’s sleep; sleep problems in children can be related to internalizing symptoms and externalizing behaviors.
Additionally, children with sleep problems can also reciprocally influence the conflict between the parents. As Kelly & El-Sheikh (2011) point out “marital conflict and child sleep problems may be reciprocal and cyclical: exposure to marital conflict may lead to children’s sleep disruptions, which in turn may lead to increased marital conflict” (p. 413). Studies have also found that sleep problems in children can lead to aggressive behaviors (Kelly & El-Sheikh, 2011, p. 413). Separation, Post-Separation and Divorce
Taylor, Purswell, Lindo, Jayne, & Fernando (2011) report that children from divorced families are at a higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems including antisocial behavior, disruptive conduct, delinquency, aggression, anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness and abandonment, emotional maladjustment and academic problems (p. 124-125). A new family structure is stressful for all family members with each affecting the other. Higher levels of parental stress cause changes in the parent-child relationship putting it at risk.
Lack of communication, conflict, hostility, stressors related to the divorce and the new family dynamics cause frustration and anger among the members. High rates of divorce continually influence the numerous studies conducted which look at their affects of divorce on childhood development. According to Sentse et al. (2011) “10-25% of children that experience a parental separation grow up to have more emotional and psychological problems” (p. 98). These problems can stem from the broken family, previous marital conflict, loss of support from family and friends, economic disadvantage and parenting problems.
In the current study by Sentse et al. , the researchers found parental separation’s main affect on developing children was externalizing problems; although for some children the separation brought relief from all the marital conflicts. The study also found adolescences that were more temperamentally fearful had increased levels of internalizing behaviors; some of the side effects of the fearful individual who experiences parental separation include withdrawal, ignored by peers, anxious or depressive feelings – resulting in a cycle of negative symptoms which could result in mental health problems (p. 03). Depressive symptoms can stem from marital conflict and divorce; cyclically, marital conflict and divorce can cause depressive symptoms.
Mothers are particularly prone to depressive symptoms and clinical depression during highly stressful events in their lives such as marital conflict, separation or divorce. Mothers who are depressed are likely to be less supportive and nurturing with their children and they are usually negative and critical which can lead to developmental problems such as internalizing and externalizing problems in their children (Connell, Hughes-Scalise, Klostermann & Azem, 2011, p. 53). Mothers with depression have “higher rates of irritability and aggression, which in turn may induce distress, anger and behavior problems in children” (Deboeck, Farris, Boker, & Borkowski, 2011, p. 1312). Deboeck et al. (2011) also finds that a mother’s psychosocial health can directly affect the development of a child; and, children of depressed mothers have difficulty regulating affect, have increased hyperactivity and attention deficits (p. 1313).
Several studies have looked at maternal depressive symptoms and found a link between the mother’s criticizing, hostile parenting causing externalizing behaviors in adolescents; additionally, adolescents with depressed mothers were more likely to become depressed when they [adolescent] are faced with family conflict and discord (Allen & Manning, 2010, p. 833). Single motherhood is more stressful on both the mother and the children; single mothers are more likely to be depressed than married mothers. Compared to single mothers, married mothers have better mental health (Afifi, T. O. , Cox, B. J. & Enns, M. W. , 2006, p. 122).
There are at least 9. 5 million families in American in which single mothers are head of the household (Afifi et al. 2006). Parenting stress is unusually high in single-mother homes and mothers have “greater financial difficulties, social isolation, and childcare responsibilities” compared to mothers who are married (Afifi et al. & Taylor, Purswell, Lindo, Jayne, & Fernando, 2011). Past research has found identified stressors which negatively affect the psychological well-being of single mothers; they are, low income, low education, family size, and ethnicity (Afifi et al. . 126).
The results of Afifi et al. study found that psychiatric disorders in married mothers is lowest, with a slight increase in never married mothers, and the greatest increase was found in separated/divorced mothers; however, previous research found that women going through a separation or divorce had higher rates of poor mental health before the separation/divorce and after (Afifi et al. p. 127). Afifi et al. found that separated/divorced mothers had high levels of depression, dysthymia, GAD, alcohol abuse, PTSD, drug abuse, agoraphobia and antisocial personality disorder.
Co-Parenting, Healthy Family Relationships, and Positive Outcomes Although marital conflict, separation/divorce, and poor parenting can adversely affect the home environment and negatively influence the development of children, there are positive factors which counter these adverse affects. Co-parenting is one of those factors. Co-parenting is associated with parents who mutually and cooperatively parent and raise their child together as a team. Although most of the research on co-parenting has been done on married couples and fathers, some does exist on co-parenting after the marital relationship has dissolved.
Co-parenting can exist in families with marital conflict as part of a solution to positive parenting even in the midst of chaos and conflict. Positive co-parenting can buffer a child against the negative effects of marital conflict and divorce. There is increasing “evidence [which] indicates that successful co-parenting relationships are beneficial for children’s socio-emotional development” (Dush, Kotila, & Schoppe-Sullivan, 2011, p. 356). Other studies have found that co-parenting affects children positively by decreasing both internalizing and externalizing symptoms (Isacco, Garfield, & Rogers, 2010, p. 262).
Healthy co-parenting relationships between separated or divorced couples can significantly improve the relationship between the non-residential father and the child; it could also help improve the relationship between the mother and father by reducing conflict. Many divorced fathers are less involved with their children and co-parenting because of the relational conflict with the divorced mother. Dush et al. (2011) states the key ingredients for co-parenting includes joint investment in the child, valuing the importance of each parent, respecting the other’s judgment, and ongoing, open communication (p. 357).
A key factor for increasing healthy family relations and positive outcomes for children in families with marital conflict or divorce is active, supportive father involvement. As Dush et al. points out, “cooperative co-parenting relationships may be key to fostering positive nonresidential father involvement and lower levels of inter-parental conflict which have been linked to children’s behavioral outcomes, academic achievement, and psychological well-being” (p. 356).
Another key component which fosters positive outcomes for children is father-child communication which has shown to decrease externalizing behaviors; (Afifi et al. 2006) additionally, open communication within the parent-child relationship where the child feels comfortable talking with their parents about the divorce has shown that children cope better (Taylor et al. , 2011). “A strong parent– child relationship can help ameliorate many of these [divorce] difficulties” (Taylor et al. 2011. p. 125). Family therapy is another positive component which can buffer the affects of marital conflict and divorce. Therapy can provide support for family members, teach problem-solving skills, communications training, conflict management and resolution.
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