The relationship between interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults

Table of Content


The association between the structure of the family and the adjustment of the child has been well-researched and the results have served the basis for divorce literature for the past five decades. In 1957, Nye suggested that child adjustment is a crucial factor affecting “the socio-psychological success or failure of the family” instead of the mere structure of the family. He noted that adolescents growing in “broken” homes (i.e., those not residing with their biological parents) “less likely present symptoms of psychosomatic illness, manifestations of delinquency and are better adjusted to parents than the adolescents in unhappy unbroken homes, and concluded that society should re-assess and re-consider the traditional view of a broken home.

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The idea that level of family unhappiness as perceived by children as a significant determinant of adjustment was investigated by Landis (1960, 1962), whose findings suggested that an unhappy marriage had more disturbing effects to children than divorce. In a research project involving college students belonging to divorced families, Landis (1960) found that of the number of students who remembered how their family looked like prior to the divorce, how the status of their lives before the divorce happened, those who perceived to be living in a happy household experienced a considerable degree of trauma than those  who saw their homes to have constant parental conflict. Utilizing the study of Nye and Landis (1979) and Raschke and Raschke (1979) did an investigation on the probable effects of the interaction between family structure and perceived conflict within the family on children’s self-concept. Their study concluded that no association exists between family structure and self-concept; rather, self-concept was apparently correlated with family conflict as perceived by the child.

This study will be purposely conducted to examine the association between the extent of interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults enrolled at a nearby university.  When the perceptions of young adults regarding the conflict between parents are studied, it will lead to a better understanding on the form and effectiveness of different coping strategies used by the young adults. For example, it is plausible that young adults may view interparental conflict as severe when parents rated the conflict to be low.

Background of the Study

The number of conflict-free parent-child relationships is very minimal in number. As a matter of fact, the arguments of some parents are emotionally charged but also clearly demonstrate their love for each other. Thus, arguing could be a salient feature on the way parents communicate and could have productive results to a certain extent. When the frequency and intensity of interparental conflict is increased, Cummings and Davis (1994) showed that children are at risk of behavioral as well as emotional difficulties. Both concluded that this conflict can better predict child adjustment problems than divorce or marital satisfaction. Only 4 to 20 percent of the differences in children’s psychological functioning could be explained by marital conflict. When additional stressors exert on the family environment like domestic violence or poverty, marital conflict will expectedly have a significant toll on the children (Cummings, Davies, & Campbell 2000).

When a child witnesses a scenario in conflict or anger, the effect on children is aversive and is often associated with high aggression, distress, or arousal and lasting adjustment difficulties such as academic underachievement, low self-esteem, and the like. Children from high-conflict homes are likely vulnerable to externalizing problems for instance aggression both physical and verbal, delinquency, and non-compliance as well as internalizing problems like being anxious and depressed (Cummings & Davies 1994). On the average, stronger correlations are noted in externalizing than internalizing problems. Moreover, homes characterized by marital conflict increases children’s risk to be poor in their interpersonal skills and social competence (Cummings, Davies, & Campbell 2000).

There are cultural variations with reference to the norm on how conflict between parents are expressed and managed. Therefore the impact and the meaning of the conflict considerably differ across families. The circumstances that children from various cultures and races address marital conflict and the ways they respond to it are studied by current research endeavours. Some scientists suggested that youth from the ethnic minority show less vulnerability towards the impact of conflict while other scientists concurred that there are no variations across variations in ethnicity and race (McLoyd, Harper, & Copeland 2001). Studies on the influence of ethnic or racial background are limited and therefore are an area that needed to be investigated further.

The adverse effects of marital conflict exposure have been found to be more pronounced among males than females. Some research found different reactivity patterns across gender and though variability exists in the functioning within each sex is higher than across two genders (Davies & Lindsay 2001). Despite the absence of clear patterns thereby yielding inconclusive generalizations, some investigators have obtained new insights into the interaction between the gender of the parent and child. Some studies have indicated that marital conflict affects relationship between children and parents whether they are of the same or opposite sex as their children (Cox, Paley, & Harter 2001).

Aims and specific objectives

Several studies have determined that children and even adolescents showed high frequency of internalizing behaviors, particularly when they have witnessed conflicts within their families (Hornor, 2005). Reports published in 2003 noted that in the US there are at least three million children are being maltreated annually and negligence emerged to be the foremost form of child maltreatment. Buehler et al. (1997) argued that interparental conflict significantly impacts the adjustment of the adolescents. Meanwhile, Davies et al. (2002) and Davies (2002) found that there are spill-over effects of marital conflicts for instance strains or tensions between parent-child relationships  and unhealthy parenting styles. Based on the samples obtained in the first and second waves of the National Survey of Families and Households, Amato (2008) claimed that behavioral problems result from increased conflict between parents. This proposed study is designed to determine the association between interparental conflict and level of adjustment of young adults enrolled at a nearby university.. Specifically, it will address the following objectives:

1.      Determine the profile of the respondents in terms of:

1.1. Gender;

1.2. Living arrangement;

1.3. Socio-economic status;

1.4. Race; and

1.5.Year level

2.   Ascertain the level of interparental conflict as assessed by the parents and young adults;

3.   Find out the extent of adjustment in terms of:

3.1.Internalizing behavior problems

3.2.Externalizing problems

4. Determine statistical differences in the level of interparental conflict and adjustment when respondents are grouped according to:

4.1.            Gender;

4.2.Living arrangement;

4.3. Socio-economic status;

4.4. Race; and

4.5. Year Level

5.  Determine the relationship between interparenal conflict and adjustment


The null hypotheses will be stated in the following manner:

Ho1: There is no significant difference in interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults when student-respondents are grouped according to gender, living arrangement, socio-economic status, race, and year level.

Ho2: There is no significant association between interpersonal conflict and adjustment of young adults in the university.

Assumptions and Limitations

For this study, it will be assumed that the respondent population will follow a normal distribution and that classes in each demographic factor will be adequately represented. Since a stratified random sampling method will be conducted, the conclusion could be generalized to reflect the overall view of the college students at a nearby university towards the level of interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults. Another assumption will be that the respondents will truthfully answer the items in the questionnaire ensuring a high external validity.

One limitation is that the data will be based on the self-report of the respondents based on the level of interparental conflict and adjustment. Only the perceptions of college students  will be determined and the independent variables will be limited only to gender, living arrangement, socio-economic status, race, and year level.  Therefore views of teachers and parents are beyond the scope of this study. Although self-reports obtained from self-administered questionnaires serves its advantage since scoring could be done with relative ease, validity and reliability must first be established. It is also possible that the respondents might merely copy the answers of their seatmates during questionnaire administration thereby introducing bias to the data set. Another possibility is that some students might not fully understand the items in the questionnaire considering that the respondent pool will be composed of different racial backgrounds whose English facility is not excellent. To remedy the language barrier, the questionnaire will be translated into their native tongue. To allay any anxiety during test administration, the investigator will emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers.


            This chapter presents relevant literature and studies necessary in explaining the results of this study.

Nature of interparental conflict

            The research of Benson (2008) aimed to associate inter-parental hostility and problematic behaviors of adolescents revealed that psychological intrusiveness, acceptance, inconsistency, and harshness are dimensions of maternal parenting that serve as potential mediators.  The sample population numbered 1, 893 from the sixth grade while self-reports were based from the adolescent- and teacher-respondents. The results tested positive for significant association between inter-parental hostility and internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems of adolescents in the study.

            Buehler (2002) provided a description on how adolescents respond cognitively and emotionally respond to the hostility of their parents. The study specifically sampled early adolescents aged 11-14 years from 416 families. Results revealed that both externalizing and internalizing behavioral problems are significantly associated with interparental hostility.

            Two hundred twenty-three six-year olds and their parents were investigated by Melissa et al. (2006) for a year with reference to the development of children’s adaptation in the face of continued exposure to inter-parental conflict. The study revealed that highly destructive conflict between parents proved to be highly detrimental to children and their cognitions when responding to conflict situations and a broad array of psychological problems.

            Similarly, Renee (2001) determined the effect of exposing children to disparaging conflicts between parents on the adjustment of young adults or children from divorced households. The respondents were from broken families who passed the screening test using a questionnaire which were given to 3000 students enrolled in Introductory Psychology over three semesters. The respondent pool consisted of 118 females and 86 males whose ages ranged from 17 to 30. The findings implied that when students’ parental attachment was stronger, discomfort was lower. Measuring discomfort provides information on the internalizing symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

            A study by Kerry (2002) regarding children’s appraisals of inter-parental conflict and

behavioral adjustment during periods of family dissolution included children from middle upper class families. Parents were asked to complete the Behavior Assessment System for Children-Parent Rating Scale (BASC-PRS; Reynold & Kamphaus, 1992) in evaluating the behavior of their children in terms of their behavioral adjustment specifically  conduct problems, aggression, hyperactivity, somatization, depression, anxiety, attention problems, typicality, and withdrawal from low- and high-conflict families. Those from high conflict families significantly demonstrated more externalizing behavior compared to those in the low conflict group. However, there is no significant difference in depression, anxiety, attention, typicality and withdrawal problems when respondents were grouped according to extent of interparental conflict and gender.

            Jorge (2000) performed an examination on the behavioral problems of children who were themselves witnesses to interparental domestic violence in their respective homes. The study interviewed 11 mothers in rehabilitation centers for battered women and rated the behavior of their children employing the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist for children aged 4-18 years, and Conflict Tactics Scale that measures violence in the family. Results revealed that parental violence impacts the behavior of the children. It also showed that children often experience being physical and verbally aggressive, anxious, depressed, and having nightmares.

            Intimate partner violence was studied by Bedi (2007) in correlation with its effects on children who have experiences of conflicts within their families. He observed that children from families who reside in households whose parents or caregivers are violent are highly likely to experience behavioral and psychological problems.

            Harden (2007) explored the association of interparental conflict with behavioral problems through a twin study. The study was aimed to determine the correlation between the frequency of parental conflicts and conduct problems from discordant twins. The subjects were 2,051 children ages 14 to 39 of 1,045 twins. Twin studies provide estimates on the environmental and genetic factors on the parents’ conflicts and ascertain whether environmental or genetic selection could be attributed to explain the correlation between interparental conflicts and conduct problems. The study showed that it is the genetic factor that influences the risks from conflicts. Moreover, genetics is a mediator in the interparental conflict-carry out problems relationship.

The effect of interparental conflict with self-esteem

            Some researchers believed that introspection is one character during adolescence regarded as crucial. This characteristic is made possible as cognitive development during this stage is highly significant. It is important that adolescents are actively involved in this process since they are subjected to self-assessment and judgments as well as the perceptions of other people towards them. Other peoples’ views interact or implicitly indicate through behaviors which may be incorporated forming the adolescents’ concepts of themselves. In this aspect of adolescent development, parents have important roles to play because self development is possible when they interact with others socially. The behaviors of other people most especially parents are being viewed as symbolic of self-worth.  When parents are demonstrative of their support towards their children, the adolescents would perceive themselves to be persons of value. Thus when parents are in conflict with each other, adolescents see them as coercive or unsupportive and consequently, the adolescents doubt their place or value as a family member. Several studies have demonstrated that association between the conflict of parents and adolescents and self-esteem (Barber, 1992).

            Rosenberg (1965) defined self-esteem to be the evaluation of the self. He further claimed that self-esteem level is established by looking at the disparity between what an individual wants to be and what is he or she like at the moment as well as how one perceives the support of others. Harter (1993) made mention that there is a connection between self-esteem and the perception of one’s satisfaction or competence. He suggested that the difference in the self perception of competence and approval of significant others are aspects of the social environment. Previously conducted studies like the one by Nassar-Mcmillan (1997) showed that parent-children relationship is linked to the positive feelings of the children. It is the belief shared by researchers that the goal of every child and adolescent is obtaining a healthy self-esteem  and it is deemed important because it is a powerful influence in the decision-making capabilities of a child or adolescent. Therefore, a significant association exists between self-esteem and emotional problems as a higher self esteem leads to fewer emotional problems like anxiety, less delinquent behaviors such as suicidal ideation and lying.

            Numerous studies pointed out the association between self-esteem and feelings of being worthy, not being considered by self as worse or better than others, recognizing strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, those suffering from low self-esteem exhibited higher dissatisfaction with oneself , had low self-respect, and more likely perceived themselves on a negative light. Generally, self-esteem is “positive or negative value which one puts his or her own attributes”. He also noted that self-esteem is negatively associated with drug abuse and depression (Caldwell et al. 1997).

            The investigation of Birch (1996) showed that the disciplinary practices of parents affect the self-esteem development among children. The study found that self-esteem is correlated with the competencies during the pre-school years. Birch and Ladd (1997) demonstrated that the quality of the relationship between parents and children are connected to how the child adjusts in school. Both found that when the self-esteem of the pre-school children is high, academic achievement is promoted and encouraged. During the early years, academic achievement is an indicator on how children perceive themselves which is also affected by their relationship with members of the family. Dekovic (1999) revealed that the frequency of conflict negatively affect the self-esteem of adolescents.

The effect of interpersonal conflict and depression

            Depression has been noted by numerous studies to be the most common internalizing behavioral problem among adolescents. Researches have shown that almost half of adolescents are depressed, hopeless, and sad at some point in their lives. However, very few showed symptoms of depression; only five percent while surprisingly only three percent were positively identified as clinically depressive. Similarly, there is a relationship between the environment in the family and the internalizing and externalizing disorders of adolescents particularly those in families characterized to have high-level conflict and low cohesion (Gans, 1990; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Compas,  Ey, & Grant, 1993; Aseltine, 1994).

            The study of Malik (2008) determined the effect of family and community violence on the psychological functioning of children. The research mainly examined that association between the exposure of children to home and community violence and symptoms of behavioral problems both externalizing and internalizing. In this study, 177 eight to twelve year olds, their parents and teachers were sampled. In assessing externalizing behavioral problems, the Children’s Behavior Checklist was self-administered. Indicated in the study is that sustained exposure of children to interparental conflict and violence are at high risk to behavioral and developmental problems. Moreover, these children are highly likely to present the symptoms of internalizing and externalizing problems.

            The research of Kopiec (2006) established the impact of interparental conflict exposure to psychological functioning and disorders among young adults who were students in New England. The number of respondents was 649. In the study, the correlation between exposure of young adults to interparental conflicts during their childhood years and disorders and distress experienced. The researcher also determined that mediating factors explaining the relationship between interparental conflict and psychological dysfunction. The results revealed that when young adults were exposed to interparental conflict as a child, the probability that they will be depressed later in their lives. Moreover, inter-parental conflict exposure as a child or adolescent is significantly associated with the present levels of depression among the young adults.

            Cummings, Goeke- Morey, and Papp (2003) performed a correlation study that investigated the association between inter-parental conflict and the internalizing and externalizing children’s behaviors. Participants in the study were children aged eight to 16 from 116 families. Males and females were equally numbered at 58. The findings proved that the child’s emotional security is compromised when he or she is a witness of interparental conflict.

            Burns and Dunlop (2002) conducted a research on the long-standing impacts of witnessing violence and conflict between parents on children and the study showed children from families where intensity and frequency of interparental conflict is high tend to be poorly adjusted and show less success in the formation and maintenance of intimate and personal relationship being young adults.

            Based on the study of parents’ avoidance, the argument of Marchand (2003) is that strategies of parents in resolving conflicts and depression symptoms are correlated to their externalizing and internalizing behaviors of children. The study analyzed the responses to questionnaires administered to 51 families and children. Children’s mothers as well as teachers accomplished the CBCL in evaluating the frequency of behavioral problems in terms of both internalizing and externalizing. Results implied that the externalizing and internalizing behaviors of children are attributed to the conflict between parents. Moreover, interparental conflict leads to depression among children. Specifically, children from high conflict homes are less involved and engaged in peer activities and playtime.

            As explained by Gorman-Smith, Henry, and Tolan (2004) in the study focusing on neighborhoods in the inner cities, the researcher indicated that children of younger and older ages likely experience between low to severe violence and that exposure is associated to emotional and behavioral difficulties which include externalizing problems, symptoms of trauma, anxiety and stress.

            The focus of Davies, Cummings, and Winter (2004) is the relationship between maternal dysphoria and adjustment of children. Respondents were parents of children in kindergarten (n=235). The children in the study were asked to complete the depressive symptoms measures as well as child adjustment and functioning of the family. Furthermore, teachers in the study were also provided copies of the research tool measuring child adjustment. The results indicated that when parents showed more symptoms of depression, it was because of higher interparental conflict and high marital insecurity. These led to insecurities in the attachment of children with the mothers as along with parental care being less warm and numerous problems in their children. Furthermore, problems in the marriage of the parents were manifested in the malfunctioning of their children psychologically which is apparent in homes whose interparental conflict level is low. risk.

            Adolescent depression was studied by Hauenstein (2003). The aim of the study is the determination of the incidence of major depressive disorder (MDD) among adolescents in the study. The study involved adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24. The study described MDD among the respondents which is further broken down into its appearance and incidence across different racial backgrounds, outcomes that could potentially emerge when MDD is left untreated and how it is assessed and treated. Findings suggested that females are prone to experience MDD and are diagnosed two times compared to their male counterparts.

            Buehler and Gerad (2002) showed that the association between aggression both physical and psychological and irresponsible parenting strategies spill over which is referred to the direct transfer of mood affecting behavior from one setting to another. This spill over into parenting techniques lead to increased maladjustment among children and adolescents. This maladjustment increased delinquency, non-compliance behaviors, poor relationships with peers and psychological distress.
Numerous studies have observed that conflict between parents result to poorer outcomes in psychological adjustment among children and adolescents according to Renk, Phares, and Epps (1999). Particularly, when they are exposed to intense parental conflict more frequently, they are at risk for externalizing and internalizing behavioral disorders (El-Sheik, 1997) such as conduct difficulties, poorer social competence, withdrawal, depression, and other health-related problems (Emery, 1999), regardless of whether the respondents are from families whose parents are divorced or married (Neighbors, Forehand, & Bau, 1997). Neighbors, Forehand, and Bau  (1997) enumerated the detrimental effects of witnessing conflicts of parents as the participants were transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood.

            Within the span of 30 years, Marcus, Lindhal, and Malik (2001) reported the consistent correlation between interparental conflict and the difficulties experienced by the children in adjusting. Different results were obtained from the studies comparing the psychological outcomes from high conflict and low conflict households. In low conflict or divorced homes, they are less likely than the high conflict group to be displaying behavioral disorders diagnosed clinically with the probability of two to four times. Likewise they are highly likely to be presenting the symptoms of withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and oppositional behavior.


            This part of the research proposal presents the following in detail: overall approach of the study, study population, sampling methods and sample size, details of participants, and recruitment of participants.

Overall approach of the study

The proposed study will employ a quantitative approach to determine the relationship between interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults at a university in the area.

Study population

Selected students currently enrolled during the SY 2010-2011 will be the study subjects. Inclusion criteria will be in place to narrow down the respondents which include the following: must be a student of the university, must be interested in participating in the study, and must sign the informed consent.

Sampling methods and sample size

In randomizing the participants in the study, the table of random numbers will be employed. Because the student population is anticipated to have a high variability with reference to demographic factors, a stratified random sampling procedure will be carried out to ensure that different categories are fairly represented in the sample. In this sampling procedure, the student population will be divided first into strata or groups which are homogeneous with reference to a specific characteristic. In every stratum, samples will be drawn at random.  It is therefore necessary to obtain a cross-tabulation of gender and racial background of the population. Once this information is established, percent distribution will be computed by dividing the frequency of each category by the total population. This will represent percent representativeness of each category in the cross-tabulation. After which, the sample size will be determined using through the table of sample sizes. The percent representativeness in each category will then be multiplied to the sample size to determine the number of respondents under each stratum in the cross-tabulation. Each student will be assigned a number and using a table of random numbers, the samples will be drawn without replacement.

Details of participants

The respondents’ profile will be described in detail. This information includes gender, living arrangement, socio-economic status, race, and year level. Extent of interparental conflict as well as adjustment of young adults will also be ascertained.


After having an initial coordination with the university, the parents will receive via mail an invitation to take part in the research that provides the aossication between level of interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults. They shall also be sent an informed consent describing the objectives and the details of each phase of the study.  Parents will receive the survey tools through electronic mail along with the directions. Both parents will be instructed to accomplish the following questionnaires independently: first, O’Leary–Porter Scale (Porter & O’Leary, 1980); second, Iowa Youth and Families Project Rating Scales (Melby, Conger, Ge, & Warner, 1995); and third, the short version of Marital Adjustment Test (Locke &Wallace, 1959).  To determine level of adjustment of young adults, they will be asked to complete  Anxious/Depressed, Withdrawn, Delinquent Behavior, and Aggressive Behavior scales from the Youth Self-Report (YSR) and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) by Achenbach (1991). Both measures are used widely and validated to determine adjustment problems. The total scores in the Withdrawn and Anxious/Depressed scales will form part of the internalizing measure while Delinquent and Aggressive Behavior scales for externalizing measure.

Data analysis

            In the analysis of research results, quality of data will be assured so that conclusions are valid. The procedure which will be utilized in presenting the data and testing the hypotheses are explained thereafter.

Data quality assurance

Entry of data into the computer system will be conducted by the researcher and checked by an assistant for data accuracy. This will prevent the introduction of errors which could potentially compromise the results of the study leading to false and erroneous conclusions.

Procedure for analysis

Both descriptive and inferential statistics will be used in presenting and interpreting the data. For the profile of the respondents, frequency and percentage will be computed. Both ANOVA and Pearson Product Moment Correlation will be applied to test the hypotheses at 5% level of significance.

Ethical considerations

Several ethical considerations will be addressed in the study. The answers given on the questionnaires will be kept confidential and only examined by the researcher. Furthermore, permission to use information will be requested and secured before results will be used and analyzed. Lastly, participants will remain anonymous and no incentives will be offered to take part in the study.

Internal Validity

This research is expected to test the hypothesis that no significant difference exists in the perceptions of interparental conflict and adjustment at 95% level of confidence by gender, living arrangement, socio-economic status, race, and year level. It is also the same significance level that the relationship between interparental conflict and adjustment among young adults at a university in the area. Therefore there is a high degree of certainty that the outcome is attributed to the variables that will be measured.

External Validity

             The research has high external validity because the sampling method will ensure that representative samples will be obtained from the population. In this way there would be no gender and racial bias that will be introduced resulting from sampling discrepancies.

Expected Findings

It is anticipated that the null hypothesis will be rejected and that the higher the level of interparental conflict is significantly correlated with adjustment of young adults at a nearby university.

Work-plan and timetable

            The study will strictly follow the work-plan and time table. The first stage of the research will be a two-week recruitment. The researcher will coordinate with the College Administration and Health Services so that a sizeable number of participants will be considered. Flyers and public announcements will be posted in all areas of the campus which will cover buildings, classrooms, and canteens to ensure that the campus is well informed about the planned study. The researcher will randomly select the respondents from a list of students in all the colleges in the university. They will be asked to accomplish a self-report on interparental conflict and adjustment at a convenient venue within the university.

Below is the tabular presentation of the time table. This time table will be strictly followed in order to promptly submit this research paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD Degree of Psychology.

Study Week
Communication and coordination with the administration


Self-administration of survey instruments

Writing of first draft

Submission of first draft


This descriptive, quantitative, cross-sectional study seeks to explore the extent of interparental conflict and adjustment of young adults from a nearby university. The data to be collected from the survey which will be the responses towards the O’Leary–Porter Scale (Porter & O’Leary, 1980); second, Iowa Youth and Families Project Rating Scales (Melby, Conger, Ge, & Warner, 1995); and third, the short version of Marital Adjustment Test (Locke &Wallace, 1959).  Anxious/Depressed, Withdrawn, Delinquent Behavior, and Aggressive Behavior scales from the Youth Self-Report (YSR) and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) shall be analyzed statistically employing both descriptive and inferential tools. Ethical issues such as respect, beneficence, and confidentiality shall also be addressed during the course of this study.


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