Longitudinal Associations Between Marital Stress and Externalizing Behavior: Does Parental Sense of Competence Mediate Processes?

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Abstract

Ecological theories emphasize associations between children and elements within their family system, such as the marital relationship. Within a developmental perspective, we longitudinally examined (a) dynamic associations between marital stress and children’s externalizing behavior, (b) mediation of these associations by parental sense of competence, and (c) the extent to which associations are similar for mothers and fathers. The sample consisted of 369 two-parent families (46.1% boys; Mage at Time 1 = 7.70 years; 368 mothers, 355 fathers). Marital stress related to having a child, children’s externalizing behavior, and perceived parental competence were assessed three times across 8 years. Multigroup analyses were used to examine models for both parents simultaneously and test for similarity in associations across spouses. A bivariate latent growth model indicated positive associated change between marital stress and externalizing behavior, supporting the idea of codevelopment. The cross-lagged panel model revealed a reciprocal relation between marital stress and perceived parental competence across a time interval of 6 years. Additionally, two elicitation effects appeared during adolescence, showing that parents who reported higher externalizing problems in early adolescence reported more marital stress and a lower sense of competence two years later. Similar associations were found for mothers and fathers. Overall, this study indicates that marital stress and externalizing behavior codevelop over time and supports literature on developmental differences regarding interrelations between subsystems and individuals within the family system.

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