Fathering and Mothering in the Family System: Linking Marital Hostility and Aggression in Adopted Toddlers

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Marital Hostility, Parenting, Fathers, Toddler Aggression

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Background: Previous studies have linked marital conflict, parenting, and externalizing problems in early childhood. However, these studies have not examined whether genes account for these links nor have they examined whether contextual factors such as parental personality or financial distress might account for links between marital conflict and parenting. We used an adoption design to allow for a clear examination of environmental impact rather than shared genes of parents and children, and assessments of parental personality and financial strain to assess the effects of context on relationships between marriage and parenting of both mothers and fathers.

Method: Participants were 308 adoption-linked families comprised of an adopted child, her/his biological mother (BM), adoptive mother (AM) and father (AF). BMs were assessed 3 to 6 and 18 months postpartum and adoptive families were assessed when the child was 18 and 27 months old. Structural equations models were used to examine associations between marital hostility, fathers’ and mothers’ parenting hostility, and child aggressive behavior at 27 months of age. Additionally the contribution of financial strain and adoptive parent personality traits was examined to determine the associations with the spillover of marital hostility to hostile parenting.

Results: A hostile marital relationship was significantly associated with hostile parenting in fathers and mothers, which were associated with aggressive behavior in toddlers. Subjective financial strain was uniquely associated with marital hostility and child aggression. Antisocial personality traits were related to a more hostile/conflicted marital relationship and to hostile parenting.

Conclusions: Results clarify mechanisms that may account for the success of early parent-child prevention programs that include a focus on parental economic strain and personality in addition to parent training.

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, v. 53, issue 4, p. 401-409