Parental conflict effects on children are a long-studied and fascinating subject in the field of psychology and social work. However, the theme is complex and can vary significantly among cultures, family dynamics, socioeconomic classes, and impacts on children based on age and character. While conflict is likely to happen in every family at times, chronic, poorly resolved, and/or violent outburst types of conflict can have an influence and have been associated with childhood depression, aggression, and anxiety as some potential outcomes (Camisasca et al., 2017). Interactions between parents can vary from very positive to highly negative. Children living in families with extensive parental conflicts are at risk of negative outcomes and mental health disorders both in the immediate and long-term prospects.
Parental conflict in the context of the research will be referred to as disagreements that result in lesser or greater misunderstandings and interactions between parents (Dinh et al., 2017). Children’s behavior, although difficult to define, will be explained as behavior patterns which adhere or deviate from normal or average expected standard for their developmental age. This can be evaluated through physical actions, temperament, state of psychological wellbeing and mental capacity, as well as interactions with environments, peers, and parents (Schwebel, 2004). The topic has much unexplored elements and presents a particular interest in social contexts, particularly in the light of elements such as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, skyrocketing divorce rates, and other challenges that have placed significant pressure on families and likely generating more conflict. Exploring this research can present needed information for parents and families to identify factors affecting children’s behavior and seek to resolve them.
The topic of parental conflict and impact on children is well-explored in academic literature. Jones et al. (2021) studied how intensity of family conflict and parental stress influence child outcomes in at-risk families. They identified significant bivariate association among parental stress and family conflict with the child demonstrating internalizing and externalizing symptoms, leading to poor child outcomes and problematic behaviors (Jones et al., 2021). He et al. (2021) found a link between parental conflict and core self-evaluation and loneliness in children. This leads to severe antisocial behavior such as addictions. This was further supported by Qi (2019) that highlighted problematic Internet use due to parental conflict as an element of emotional dysregulation. D’Onofio & Emery (2019) highlighted that research indicates that parental conflict, particularly to the point of separation, can cause alteration issues the likes of unruly behavior, lower grades at school, and family instability. Despite the potential resilience, children will experience emotional pain and worry that can cause to potential psychological problems.
Meanwhile, Zemp et al. (2018) find a correlation between interparental conflict and children’s adjustment within the context of within-family fluctuations. They found that while parental conflict was not a predictor to child problems, those exposed to it demonstrated increased instances of externalizing problems, which may also contribute to further parenting conflict. Lucas-Thompson et al. (2015) found that parental and marital conflict caused increased stress levels in adolescents, resulting in self-blame and elevated internalized behaviors which be damaging in terms of physiological and psychological adjustment. In some cases, exposure to parental violence, either verbal, emotional or physical can create posttraumatic responses in children. Harold and Sellers (2018) recognize that the quality of interparental relationships influences child psychopathology. Children are affected by how parents express and manage conflicts on a continuum. They argue that evidence indicates that elements such as emotional, behavioral, social, and academic outcomes are affected alongside the individual’s ability to form future interpersonal relationships.
Harman et al. (2018) recognize that conflict and violence are highly alienating behaviors for families. It harms the relationship between the parental figures and their child, with long-term negative consequences. Härkönen et al. (2017) suggest that children faced with parental conflict and divorce experience lower psychological wellbeing and behavioral problems. A conflict-ridden family destabilizes the environment and creates negative effects, sometimes more than parental separation. Good parent-child relationships are necessary for positive child outcomes, but as recognized by Harman et al. (2018), the conflict alienates the relationship creating poor social relationships and anti-social behavior (Härkönen et al., 2017).
At the same time, parental conflict may have lesser effect on behavior over time as children are typically flexible and adaptable, finding ways to cope. Camisasca et al. (2017) suggest that children have internal working models of attachment which moderate perceived distress, serving as coping strategy of sort. Children can use coping strategy to mediate association between distress reactions and perceived coping efficacy with positive cognitive restructuring. It strongly depends on the personality type of the child as to the effect that they can use distraction and coping mechanisms. Similarly, Davies et al. (2007) studies indicate adaptability in child reaction patterns to interparental conflict. Based on the sensitization hypothesis, the child response to conflict changes with time as the child recognized and adapts to the environment within the context of such familial relations.
Research Questions and Hypothesis
The set research questions for this study are:
- How do conflicts between parents in the family affect how children behave when they are outside the family?
- How do parental conflicts in a family change the children’s attitudes towards other children and parents?
The research will specifically seek to test:
Null hypothesis: Children who experience parental conflicts in the family setup have the same behaviors as children who do not experience parental disputes in their families.
Alternative hypothesis: Children experiencing chronic and/or extreme parental conflicts in the family set up will deviate in behavior as seen either developmentally or not-adhering to norms, more often than children who do not experience parental disputes in their families.
The study will adhere to an observational research design, a type of study of non-experimental situations where behavior is observed and recorded. Since parental relations and interactions cannot be ethically or realistically manipulated, the key will be to observe and collect data. This is also descriptive research as using measures such as surveys, insights on behavior and attitudes can be collected from both parents and children. The independent variable remains as the interaction and level of conflicts between parents, while the dependent variable is the behavioral response of the child.
Participants will be families with parents living together in a single household with their children. The participant families should have no more than 2 children, as larger families typically have different dynamics which may affect the current research. Children should be aged 5-10 years old, as this is the primary age group for this research and adolescence may also introduce factors that are outside the researcher’s control in observing behavior. Children should not have any diagnosed developmental or severe mental health disorders as to not skew the behavioral observations and research purpose. Parental age should be between 23 and 50 as this presents a wide median gap of average parental age in the United States, and given the sampling age of the children, eliminates underage or advanced aged parental couples which typically present unique challenges of their own that may influence the research. Race and socioeconomic demographics of parents and families will be collected in the data but there are no barriers to participation. A total number of families studied is expected to be between 15 and 20.
Several measures will be used for both parents and children. First, parents will be asked to fill out the well-known Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS) consisting of a 32-item questionnaire which assesses relationship quality of intact couples, including satisfaction, intimacy, and matters of importance in a relationship. Furthermore, couples will be presented with the O’Leary Porter Scale (OPS), a measure assessing frequency of hostility observed by their children (Pote et al, 2020). Upon completing the measures, a semi-structured informal interview will be conducted with each couple to qualitatively assess the status quo of the conflict and tension in the family.
To measure the dependent variable regarding the behavior of the child, a measure will be given to the parents, to the child, and the researchers will observe performance in their school or daycare setting. A Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL/6-18) is given to parent to determine the child’s emotional and behavioral problems such as anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, or depression. A Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (MFQ) is given to the child to assess the individual’s feelings and thoughts (Pote et al, 2020). Finally, with permissions, researchers will observe the child in outside the home setting, preferably at school or daycare, gaining insight from observation and conversation with educators regarding the child’s developmental and behavioral progress.
- Preparing all necessary necessities for the study including documents, measures, data collection tools.
- Obtaining approval from university and if necessary, an ethics committee to conduct the study.
- Conducting sampling via in-person and online outreach. Asking potential candidate families to fill out a form with basic information. Evaluating criteria if fit for study.
- Forming the subject participant sample. Parents are presented with the topic of the research and openly told what will be examined and observed. Parents sign consent and ethical research agreements. Each family is randomly assigned a number which will be used for their reference from there on in all research, analysis, and publication (i.e. family #1, father #1, child #1).
- Researcher schedules time to meet with parents without the child present. Parents are presented the DAS and OPS that couples complete together with minimal interference from research (guidance questions are allowed). Upon completion, the researcher conducts a semi-structured non-recorded interview, taking down notes. The parents are then presented the CBCL/6-18 measure to complete.
- Parents’ consent for researcher to observe and interact with their child. If possible, in a school setting, if not, then in a social setting such as a playground or with friends. Researcher observes the child’s behavior with peers and takes notes subjectively. If possible, objective performance and evaluations are provided such as grades or instructor notes on behavior.
- The researcher sits down with the child, without parents in the same room, and guides the child in filling out the MFQ measure. No interview is conducted, but a researcher can ask the child a few questions regarding his perception of parental conflict or about their behavior.
- All data is collected and analyzed. Families are thanked for their participation and given contact information in case of any questions.
- Data is published, and families are provided copies or links to the published works with encouragement consider behaviors in the context of findings.
Four distinct survey measures are used in this study, with all having quantifiable results. Since the subject pool is small, the quantified results for each survey can be presented in distinct tables with subject family/child number. A separate table should be present below the results table, identifying the meaning behind ranges of numerical scores. For example, for the MFQ, scoring 27 or higher indicates depression. column should be added with median, average, and standard deviation values. These statistical analyses along with a t-test should be conducted on the data. The key for the researcher is to present the coefficient correlation, a statistical measure that measures the strength of the relationship between two variables. The measures for the parental couples indicating their strength of the relationship (DAS) and frequency of conflicts (OPS) are two independent variables, meanwhile the child’s behavior/attitudes portrayed by the CBCL/6-18 and MFQ are two dependent variables. The Pearson correlation coefficient statistical test will be utilized to evaluate the strength of the relationship between each of these variables, proving or disproving the hypothesis. Appropriate graphs can be inserted to demonstrate this strength.
The result section should be complemented by a discussion where the researcher, drawing on existing knowledge and literature, analyzes the outcomes of the study. The researcher should draw connections between the variables and discuss whether conflict in the family impacts a child’s behavior, emotional state, and aptitude. In the context of the research questions and the hypothesis, the discussion will come to the conclusions on the topic. It is at this point that the discussion can be supported by qualitative data such as quotes from parent interviews or observations/interactions with the child. The researcher should clearly state whether the null hypothesis or the alternative hypothesis was proven and the outcomes of the research. Finally, the discussion should include elements of limitations, strengths, and contributions that the study offers. The paper can end with a brief discussion regarding implications and potential uses of the findings along with paths to further research on the subject. The findings will be presented in standard scientific article format, following the structure discussed in this proposal. To communicate findings, the analysis of the results will be presented in a published document that will be containing all the summaries, clinical statements, and authenticity of the research (O’Leary, 2018). Scholarly journals can be helpful to publish the findings as they will show the professional aspect of the study. Findings can be published in peer reviewed journals such as Journal of Family Psychology or Journal of Child and Family Studies. A suitable conference where findings can be presented is the International Conference on Paediatrics and Child Psychiatry on November 1, 2021.
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Davies, P.T., Sturge-Apple, M.L., Winter, M.A., Cummings, M. E., & Farrell, D. (2007). Interpersonal development. Routledge.
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