Family Cohesion and Enmeshment Moderate Associations Between Maternal Relationship Instability and Children’s Externalizing Problems

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This study examined the moderating roles of 2 different types of family-level closeness (i.e., family cohesion and enmeshment) in associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems in early childhood. Participants in this longitudinal (i.e., 2 waves of data collection spaced 2 years apart), multimethod (i.e., survey, observations), multi-informant (i.e., parent, teacher, observer) study included 243 preschool children (Mage = 4.60 years) and their parents. Findings from the lagged, autoregressive tests of the predictive pathways indicated that family cohesion and enmeshment moderated associations between maternal relationship instability and increases in children’s externalizing problems. Maternal relationship instability was a significantly stronger predictor of children’s externalizing problems when cohesion was low or enmeshment was high. Follow-up analyses revealed that cohesion predicted decreases in externalizing problems only at higher levels of instability. Conversely, higher levels of enmeshment predicted increases in children’s externalizing problems at high instability but decreases in externalizing symptoms under more stable family conditions.

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