Partner aggression in high-risk families affects parenting beginning at birth

Jim Barlow
EurekAlert

University of Oregon researchers begin to see impacts on parenting and the children in high-risk families.

EUGENE, Ore. — Bickering spouses may need to clean up their act. New research at the University of Oregon finds that the level of aggression between partners around the time when a child is born impacts how a mom will be parenting three years later.

The study — published in the Journal of Family Psychology — is part of a longitudinal research effort involving more than 400 mothers in high-risk family environments, based mostly on risk for child-welfare involvement and socioeconomic status, who were initially recruited at a San Diego, Calif., hospital when their children were born in 1996-97.

At issue is whether psychological aggression — name-calling, arguing and slamming doors — and physical abuse between parents leads to harsh parenting in a high-risk sample across the early years of child rearing. Until recently, researchers have focused mostly on low-risk, middle class samples when trying to understand the role of partner aggression in the family. That focus also has often been on school-aged children, despite a growing understanding of the importance of the early environment in shaping healthy development.

“We have long been aware that high levels of family conflict can have a negative effect on children’s development, but most people tend to think that this doesn’t apply to babies. In fact, we are now finding that this notion of toxic stress in families applies to babies as well,” said Philip A. Fisher, a professor of psychology at the UO and scientist at the independent, non-profit Oregon Social Learning Center. “We are finding that people should mind their relationships with their spouses, not just with their babies.”

For the study, UO doctoral student Alice M. Graham, in collaboration with Fisher and Hyoun K. Kim, also a scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center, revisited questionnaire data from 461 of the 488 initially recruited mothers who had provided information about their partner relationship during the four-year study period from birth through the child’s third birthday.

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