University of Rochester

$3.1 Million Grant to Understand Effects of Parental Conflict on Children

August 11, 2010

Children respond to marital conflict in myriad ways; some act out with anger, distress, or avoidance, while others observe mom and dad's arguments with milder, more self-controlled concern and empathy for their parents.

To identify precisely how these different coping behaviors develop, University of Rochester psychologists Melissa Sturge-Apple and Patrick Davies have been awarded a $3.1 million grant to study 250 families over three years. The findings, say the researchers, will help psychologists better understand how interparental relationships are associated with children's mental health and may help inform targeted interventions for families in distress.

"Conflict is a part of life. We all come into conflict," says Sturge-Apple, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology. When marital disagreements are resolved respectfully, children are able to weather the discord with less anxiety, she explains. But when parental conflict is chronic, destructive, or aggressive, children are put at risk for a wide range of mental health problems. "If we actually can begin to understand these patterns of coping behaviors in children and why they develop, we can have a whole new way of helping kids," she says.

Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and conducted at the University's Mt. Hope Family Center, the investigation will focus on families with a child who is four years old, a formative period in which children are old enough to be easily evaluated for behavioral responses and young enough to show development over time.

The researchers will test through observations, clinical interviews, and self-reporting whether children's responses to conflict between parents fall into distinct patterns. For example, when parents argue, does a child show subtle but intense signs of distress and fear or does a child intervene and challenge the parents. These responses, says Davies, a professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, may be adaptive by defusing an argument or by protecting the child from being dragged into parental disputes, but, in some cases, they also might predispose the child to greater difficulties in peer relationships, school adjustment, and mental health outcomes.

The multi-faceted study will look at how parents handle arguments among themselves, how they interact with their child as a couple, and how the parents relate to their son or daughter alone. Finally, physiological reactions to arguments, such as heart rate and levels of the stress hormones alpha amylase and cortisol, will be measured to determine how child responses to parental relationships may lead to changes in children's mental health by altering the way their bodies respond biologically to stress.

The research builds on the complementary strengths of the investigators and the University. Davies, a leader in the study of parental relationships, is the co-author of emotional security theory, an influential theory of children's response to parental conflict that guides this study. Sturge-Apple is an expert on the parent-child relationship. Mt. Hope Family Center is a national leader in supporting complex longitudinal studies of family relationships and children's development.