ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (5): 875-884.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.00875

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Effect of parental marital conflict on child development and its mechanism

WANG Xuesi1, LI Jingya1, WANG Meifang2()   

  1. 1School of Psychology, Shandong Normal University, Jinan 250014, China
    2School of Elementary Education, Capital Normal University, Beijing 100048, China
  • Received:2020-05-16 Online:2021-05-15 Published:2021-03-30
  • Contact: WANG Meifang

Abstract: Marital relationship is one of the core relationships in family. The conflict in marital relationship is recognized as a factor in accounting for adverse effect on child development. The primary objective of the current review was to provide a comprehensive overview of the effect of parental marital conflict on child development and its mechanism. Furthermore, crucial future direction in this field was proposed based on the existing studies.
Parental marital conflict had been established as a risk factor for child cognitive and socioemotional development in both theoretical and empirical studies. Specifically, parental marital conflict may lead to poor executive functioning and academic achievement. Moreover, children who experienced parental marital conflict were more likely to show more problem behavior (i.e., internalizing and externalizing problem behavior; the effect on internalizing problem behavior was larger than that on externalizing problem behavior) and social maladjustment (e.g., poor parent-child, sibling, peer, teacher-student, and even adulthood intimate relationship). It should be noted that parental marital conflict had a short-term and long-term effect on children’s cognitive and socioemotional development, and the increasing parental marital conflict may have a more significant effect.
Guided by process-oriented approach, researchers began to focus on how parental marital conflict affected child development. Children’s cognitive and emotional process and family process were described to clarify the pathways by which parental marital conflict influenced child development. As for children’s cognitive and emotional process, cognitive-contextual framework emphasized the crucial role of children’s cognitive appraisal toward parental marital conflict. Children who viewed parental marital conflict as threatening to themselves or the well-being of family, felt that they were responsible for the conflict, and/or had inadequate skills for successfully coping with the conflict were likely to experience maladjustment. Emotional security theory posited that parental marital conflict undermined children’s emotional security and further development. As for family process, according to family systems theory, parental marital conflict was often accompanied by negative emotion and behavior, which may spillover into parent-child interactions, resulting in ineffective parenting, disagreement over child-rearing, and parent-child triangulation. These negative interactions may carry detrimental consequences for children.
Moreover, child and environmental factors may moderate the association between parental marital conflict and child development. Specifically, child age and gender may play a moderating role in this association, but the evidence was somewhat mixed. Guided by the biopsychosocial model, the autonomic nervous system functioning in children also served as a moderator of the association between parental marital conflict and child development. Previous studies shed light on the joint action of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and revealed that opposing action of the PNS and SNS (i.e., coactivation and coinhibition) operated as a vulnerability factor for child development in the context of parental marital conflict, whereas reciprocal action of the PNS and SNS (i.e., reciprocal parasympathetic activation and reciprocal sympathetic activation) operated as a protective factor. As with child age and gender, the evidence for reciprocal parasympathetic activation was also mixed. In addition, the ecological systems theory emphasizes that environmental factors (e.g., family socioeconomic status, social support, and cultural values) may also moderate the effect of parental marital conflict on child development. A high level of family socioeconomic status and social support may buffer the negative effect of parental marital conflict on child development. However, culture value that emphasized family and social harmony may intensify the negative effect.
Future studies should use individual-centered approaches to examine the effects of different types of parental marital conflict on child development in multiple aspects simultaneously and integrate the multi-mechanism of parental marital conflict on child development. Cross-cultural studies should be carried out to further examine the role of culture in the effect of marital conflict on child development. Additionally, future studies should further examine the cyclical bidirectional association between parental marital conflict and child development.

Key words: parental marital conflict, child development, cognitive and emotional process, family process, autonomic nervous system

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