The Distinctive Sequelae of Children’s Coping With Interparental Conflict: Testing the Reformulated Emotional Security Theory

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Abstract

Two studies tested hypotheses about the distinctive psychological consequences of children’s patterns of responding to interparental conflict. In Study 1, 174 preschool children (M = 4.0 years) and their mothers participated in a cross-sectional design. In Study 2, 243 preschool children (M = 4.6 years) and their parents participated in 2 annual measurement occasions. Across both studies, multiple informants assessed children’s psychological functioning. Guided by the reformulated version of emotional security theory, behavioral observations of children’s coping with interparental conflict assessed their tendencies to exhibit 4 patterns based on their function in defusing threat: secure (i.e., efficiently address direct instances of threat), mobilizing (i.e., react to potential threat and social opportunities), dominant (i.e., directly defeat threat), and demobilizing (i.e., reduce salience as a target of hostility). As hypothesized, each profile predicted unique patterns of adjustment. Greater security was associated with lower levels of internalizing and externalizing symptoms and greater social competence, whereas higher dominance was associated with externalizing problems and extraversion. In contrast, mobilizing patterns of reactivity predicted more problems with self-regulation, internalizing symptoms, externalizing difficulties, but also greater extraversion. Finally, higher levels of demobilizing reactivity were linked with greater internalizing problems and lower extraversion but also better self-regulation.

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