Family Dynamics and Children's Outcomes: the Role of Silent Interparental Conflict
Conflict between parents has been widely studied and its detrimental consequences for children have been documented across domains of psychological functioning, academic performance and social adjustment. Research has focused on the verbal and physical expressions of interparental conflict, however, when tested for, strong indications have been emerging that its non-verbal non-physical forms have similarly serious implications for the young people‟s wellbeing as the overt ones. The scarceness of findings related to covert forms of interparental conflict provided impetus for qualitative research with parents and adolescents (Kielpikowski & Pryor, 2008; Pryor & Pattison, 2007). The research has resulted in proposing a construct of silent interparental conflict (SIC) and provided the conceptual foundation for this thesis. Adopting a systemic approach to the functioning of families characterised by interrelatedness and reciprocity of influences among the members, this thesis investigated processes related to silent interparental conflict through a series of empirical studies with New Zealand families.
The need for developing the Silent Interparental Conflict Scale (SICS) for parents was rationalised following a review of a comprehensive assembly of representative instruments for measuring couples‟ conflict. The items were derived from the qualitative data corpus (Kielpikowski, 2004). A three factor structure was established and supported by confirmatory factor analyses using data from two samples of parents (Ns = 108 and 260). The SICS demonstrated excellent psychometric qualities and stability over time.
The modus operandi of SIC was hypothesises and tested from the perspectives of parents and adolescents. Drawing from multidisciplinary scholarship, predictors and psychological outcomes of SIC for parents were hypothesised. Theoretical models were tested concurrently and after a lapse of one year utilising data from 115 parental dyads. The findings suggested divergent processes for mothers and fathers. The hypothesised links between the incidence and the Costs of SIC and psychological maladjustment were supported concurrently. Additionally, uniquely for mothers, their perception of the Benefits of silent conflict resulted in reduced maladjustment over time. SIC for fathers was consistently predicted by own avoidance of conflict both concurrently and over time. For mothers the consistent concurrent and longitudinal predictor of SIC was the perceived hostility from partner. Protectiveness towards children acted as a concurrent predictor of SIC for mothers and fathers, for whom additionally it predicted SIC over time. Tests for reciprocal influences using the Actor Partner Interdependence Model (Kenny, Kashy, & Cook, 2006) indicated a significant Partner effect from fathers‟ own avoidance to mothers‟ perceptions of SIC. Parents differed significantly on Actor effects with path coefficients higher on conflict avoidance for fathers and on partner‟s hostility for mothers.
The impact of SIC on the wellbeing of adolescents was hypothesised within the cognitive contextual framework (Grych & Fincham, 1990) and the spillover hypothesis (Erel & Burman, 1995). Adolescents‟ adjustment was conceptualised as consisting of internalising and externalising problems measured with items from the SDQ (Goodman, Melzer, & Bailey, 1998), and of positive expectations of the future measured with a scale designed for the study. Threat, self-blame and parental SIC-related spillover behaviour represented by hostility towards the adolescents were posed as mediators of the effects of SIC on adolescents‟ adjustment. Separate models were tested for boys and girls and for the parent-child gender constellations. Over time the effect of SIC on boys‟ internalising problems was fully mediated by father‟s hostility. In contrast, the longitudinal effect of SIC on girls‟ internalising problems was fully mediated by the appraisal of threat and the effect on their expectations of the future was fully mediated by mother‟s hostility. Analyses of longitudinal familywide models revealed that fathers‟ perceptions of SIC differentially influenced the boys‟ and girls‟ processes.
The findings advance our understanding of the functioning of SIC and highlight the relatedness and the uniqueness of associated processes for family members depending on their gender and role within the family system.