The Complex Role of Parental Separation in the Association between Family Conflict and Child Problem Behavior

TitleThe Complex Role of Parental Separation in the Association between Family Conflict and Child Problem Behavior
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsXerxa, Y, Rescorla, LA, Serdarevic, F, Van IJzendorn, MH, Jaddoe, VW, Verhulst, FC, Luijk, MPCM, Tiemeier, H
JournalJournal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology

Parental separation is a major adverse childhood experience. Parental separation is generally preceded by conflict, which is itself a risk factor for child problem behavior. Whether parental separation independent of conflict has negative effects on child problem behavior is unclear. This study was embedded in Generation R, a population-based cohort followed from fetal life until age 9 years. Information on family conflict was obtained from 5,808 mothers and fathers. The 4-way decomposition method was used to apportion the effects of prenatal family conflict and parental separation on child problem behavior into 4 nonoverlapping components. Structural equation modeling was used to test bidirectional effects of child problem behavior and family conflict over time. Family conflict from pregnancy onward and parental separation each strongly predicted child problem behavior up to preadolescence according to maternal and paternal ratings. Using the 4-way decomposition method, we found evidence for a strong direct effect of prenatal family conflict on child problem behavior, for reference interaction, and for mediated interaction. The evidence for interaction implies that prenatal family conflict increased the children’s vulnerability to the harmful effect of parental separation. There was no evidence of a pure indirect effect of parental separation on child problem behavior. Overall, results indicated that if parental separation occurs in families with low levels of conflict, parental separation does not predict more child problem behavior. Moreover, the bidirectional pattern suggested that child problem behavior influences the persistence of family conflict.