Monday, April 17, 2017

They are Watching: Child Wellbeing and Parent Interaction

Our lab has a new paper out on how interaction between parents is related to their children’s emotional wellbeing. The official abstract is here. The lead author is Kayla Knopp. She wrote a very clear lay summary of what is a pretty complex paper, so I asked her if I could post it, here.

Kayla Knopp’s Summary

We found that when couples change their specific interaction behaviors (communication and conflict management skills), their children’s wellbeing also tends to change in corresponding ways. On the other hand, we found no evidence that changes in more general marital satisfaction are linked to changes in children’s wellbeing; our findings suggest that children might respond most to the ways that parents interact with each other.

Breaking this down further, we found that improvements in parents’ communication skills were linked to improvements in their children’s emotional wellbeing (what we and others have called internalizing problems), whereas improvements in both communication and conflict management were linked to improvements in children’s behavioral problems (what we and others have called externalizing problems). That is, children seem to respond emotionally to parents’ communication, overall, but respond behaviorally to parents’ conflict. The overarching conclusion is that parents who improve their interactions with their spouse are likely to see similar improvements in their children’s emotional wellbeing and behavior.

A lot of theories suggest that children may be quite sensitive to the way their parents behave toward one another, and our research provides data that support that idea. The take-home from this study is that if we want to improve children’s wellbeing, teaching their parents how to better communicate and manage conflict is probably a great place to start. Now, we can’t say for sure that these changes in parents’ interactions will cause changes in children’s wellbeing; we did not do the kind of study that can establish a causal link. But what we can say is that our research supports efforts to help parents reduce their conflict and improve their communication.

Scott’s Additional Comments

I want to highlight a couple of points Kayla Knopp makes about our new paper. First, children may not be all that sensitive to how happy their parents are together; they are sensitive to how parents treat each other in ways that can be seen. Second, parents help their children by treating each other with respect—by communicating well and managing conflict constructively. For some couples, this is easier said than done. 

Knopp, K., Rhoades, G. K., Allen, E. S., Parsons, A., Ritchie, L. L., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Within-and between-family associations of marital functioning and child wellbeing. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(2), 451 – 461. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12373