This study investigates the extent to which parents’ relationship quality affects children’s externalizing problems and whether the quality of the mother–child relationship and the family socio-demographic background moderate this association. We use data from a nationally representative sample of UK children (the Millennium Cohort Study) and OLS regressions models. We find that parents’ relationship quality is clearly related to children’s externalizing problems at ages 3 and 5 years and that the quality of mother–child relationships explains a substantial part of this association. Notably, a reported warm relationship with the mother does not reduce the detrimental effect of poor parental relationship problems, whereas a conflictual relationship exacerbates it. The effect of parents’ relationship quality is the same for children from different ethnic and marital status backgrounds, as well as for mother’s education and child’s gender, but is greatest amongst poorer children. At age 5, poor children with the lowest level of parents’ relationship quality have an externalizing score of 7.21 while poor children with the highest level have a score of 4.16; a 3 point difference. In contrast, among rich children, those with the lowest level of parent relationship quality have an externalizing score of 6.16 while those with the highest level have a score of 4.01; a difference of 2.15 points. These findings suggest that policies and intervention programs that promote parents’ relationship quality are likely to be beneficial for children from different family contexts, but especially for those from poor families.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Acquah, D., Sellers, R., Stock, L., & Harold, G. (2017). Inter-parental conflict and outcomes for children in the context of poverty and disadvantage. Early Intervention Foundation. http://www.eif.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/interparental-conflict-children-poverty-economic-pressure_April2017.pdf. Accessed 6 May 2017.
Adams, N., Barton, A., Bray, S., Johnson, G., & Matejic, P. (2010). Households below average income: An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95–2008/09. London: Department for Work and Pensions.
Amato, P. R., Johnson, D. R., Booth, A., & Rogers, S. J. (2003). Continuity and change in marital quality between 1980 and 2000. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 1–22.
Amato, P. R., Loomis, L. S., & Booth, A. (1995). Parental divorce, marital conflict, and offspring well-being during early adulthood. Social Forces, 73, 895–915.
Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997). A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family, 59, 612–624.
Appleyard, K., Egeland, B., van Dulmen, M. H., & Sroufe, L. A. (2005). When more is not better: The role of cumulative risk in child behavior outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 235–245.
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator–mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182.
Baxter, J., Hewitt, B., & Haynes, M. (2008). Life course transitions and housework: Marriage, parenthood, and time on housework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(2), 259–272.
Beautrais, A. L., Joyce, P. R., & Mulder, R. T. (1998). Youth suicide attempts: A social and demographic profile. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 349–357.
Bradford, K., Vaughn, L. B., & Barber, B. K. (2008). When there is conflict interparental conflict, parent–child conflict, and youth problem behaviors. Journal of Family Issues, 29, 780–805.
Brook, J. S., & Newcomb, M. D. (1995). Childhood aggression and unconventionality: Impact on later academic achievement, drug use, and workforce involvement. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 156, 393–410.
Brown, S. L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58, 668–678.
Bryant, C. M., Wickrama, K. A. S., Bolland, J., Bryant, B. M., Cutrona, C. E., & Stanik, C. E. (2010). Race matters, even in marriage: Identifying factors linked to marital outcomes for African Americans. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 2, 157–174.
Buehler, C., Anthony, C., Krishnakumar, A., Stone, G., Gerard, J., & Pemberton, S. (1997). Interparental conflict and youth problem behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 6, 233–247.
Buehler, C., & Gerard, J. M. (2002). Marital conflict, ineffective parenting, and children’s and adolescents’ maladjustment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 78–92.
Callanan, M., Hudson, R., Husain, F., & Robert, E. (2017). Exploring parental relationship support: A qualitative study. Early Intervention Foundation. http://www.eif.org.uk/publication/exploring-parental-relationship-support-a-qualitative-study/. Accessed 6 Jun 2017.
Campbell, S. B. (1995). Behavior problems in preschool children: A review of recent research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 113–149.
Carlson, M. J. (2007). Trajectories of couple relationship quality after childbirth: Does marriage matter. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Working Paper. Accessed April 1, 2017 from http://crcw.princeton.edu/workingpapers/wp07-11-ff.pdf.
Caspi, A. (2000). The child is father of the man: Personality continuities from childhood to adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 158–172.
Conger, R. D., Conger, K. J., & Martin, M. J. (2010). Socioeconomic status, family processes, and individual development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 685–704.
Cox, M. J., Paley, B., & Harter, K. (2001). Interparental conflict and parent-child relationships. In J. H. Grych & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research, and application (pp. 249–272). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2011). Marital conflict and children: An emotional security perspective. New York: Guilford Press.
Currie, J., & Almond, D. (2011). Human capital development before age five. Handbook of Labor Economics, 4, 1315–1486.
Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. M. (1994). Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 387–411.
Davies, P. T., Sturge-Apple, M. L., Woitach, M. J., & Cummings, E. M. (2009). A process analysis of the transmission of distress from interparental conflict to parenting: Adult relationship security as an explanatory mechanism. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1761.
Dew, J. (2009). Has the marital time cost of parenting changed over time? Social Forces, 88(2), 519–541.
Dew, J., & Wilcox, W. B. (2011). If momma ain’t happy: Explaining declines in marital satisfaction among new mothers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 1–12.
Doherty, P., Stott, A., & Kinder, K. (2004). Delivering services to hard to reach families in On Track areas: Definition, consultation and needs assessment. Development and Practice Report, 15. Accessed March 1, 2017 from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=205210.
Dollberg, D., Feldman, R., & Keren, M. (2010). Maternal representations, infant psychiatric status, and mother–child relationship in clinic-referred and non-referred infants. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 19, 25.
Doubell, L., Stock, L., & Acquah, D. (2016). Inter-parental relationship support services available in the UK: Rapid review of evidence. http://www.eif.org.uk/publication/inter-parental-relationship-support-services-available-in-the-uk-rapid-review-of-evidence/. Accessed 6 Apr 2017.
El-Sheikh, M., & Elmore-Staton, L. (2004). The link between marital conflict and child adjustment: Parent-child conflict and perceived attachments as mediators, potentiators, and mitigators of risk. Development and Psychopathology, 16, 631–648.
Erel, O., & Burman, B. (1995). Interrelatedness of marital relations and parent-child relations: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 108–132.
Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., & Ridder, E. M. (2007). Conduct and attentional problems in childhood and adolescence and later substance use, abuse and dependence: Results of a 25-year longitudinal study. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 88, S14–S26.
Flouri, E., Midouhas, E., Joshi, H., & Tzavidis, N. (2014). Emotional and behavioural resilience to multiple risk exposure in early life: The role of parenting. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 24, 745–755.
Flouri, E., Tzavidis, N., & Kallis, C. (2010). Area and family effects on the psychopathology of the Millennium Cohort Study children and their older siblings. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 152–161.
Forehand, R., Biggar, H., & Kotchick, B. A. (1998). Cumulative risk across family stressors: Short- and long-term effects for adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 26, 119–128.
Frazer, H. (2016). Prevention and early intervention services to address children at risk of poverty. In Synthesis report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Frosch, C. A., & Mangelsdorf, S. C. (2001). Marital behavior, parenting behavior, and multiple reports of preschoolers’ behavior problems: Mediation or moderation? Developmental Psychology, 37, 502.
Gähler, M., & Palmtag, E.-L. (2015). Parental divorce, psychological well-being and educational attainment: Changed experience, unchanged effect among Swedes born 1892–1991. Social Indicators Research, 123, 601–623.
Gerard, J. M., & Buehler, C. (1999). Multiple risk factors in the family environment and youth problem behaviors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61, 343–361.
Gerard, J. M., Krishnakumar, A., & Buehler, C. (2006). Marital conflict, parent-child relations, and youth maladjustment a longitudinal investigation of spillover effects. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 951–975.
Goldberg, J. S., & Carlson, M. J. (2014). Parents’ relationship quality and children’s behavior in stable married and cohabiting families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 762–777.
Gomulak-Cavicchio, B. M. (2010). Talking to children about interparental disagreements: A longitudinal examination of the multiple determinants of maternal post-conflict communication. University of Rochester.
Goodman, A., Lamping, D. L., & Ploubidis, G. B. (2010). When to use broader internalising and externalising subscales instead of the hypothesised five subscales on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ): Data from British parents, teachers and children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 1179–1191.
Goodman, R. (1997). The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38, 581–586.
Goodman, S. H., Rouse, M. H., Connell, A. M., Broth, M. R., Hall, C. M., & Heyward, D. (2011). Maternal depression and child psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14, 1–27.
Grych, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (1990). Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: A cognitive-contextual framework. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267–290.
Haines, M. M., McMunn, A., Nazroo, J. Y., & Kelly, Y. J. (2002). Social and demographic predictors of parental consultation for child psychological difficulties. Journal of Public Health Medicine, 24, 276–284.
Han, Y., Rudy, D., & Proulx, C. M. (2017). Longitudinal relationships among marital conflict, maternal and paternal warmth and control, and preschoolers’ socioemotional outcomes in South Korea. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48, 1522–1536.
Harold, G., Acquah, D., Sellers, R., Chowdry, H., & Feinstein, L. (2016). What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children. Early Intervention Foundation. http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/25869/1/what-works-to-enhance-inter-parental-relationships.pdf. Accessed 2 Apr 2017.
Hayatbakhsh, R., Clavarino, A. M., Williams, G. M., Bor, W., O’Callaghan, M. J., & Najman, J. M. (2013). Family structure, marital discord and offspring’s psychopathology in early adulthood: A prospective study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 22, 693–700.
Heinrichs, N., Cronrath, A.-L., Degen, M., & Snyder, D. K. (2010). The link between child emotional and behavioral problems and couple functioning. Family Science, 1, 152–172.
Jouriles, E. N., Bourg, W. J., & Farris, A. M. (1991). Marital adjustment and child conduct problems: A comparison of the correlation across subsamples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 354–357.
Kieling, C., Baker-Henningham, H., Belfer, M., Conti, G., Ertem, I., Omigbodun, O., et al. (2011). Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: Evidence for action. The Lancet, 378(9801), 1515–1525.
Kiernan, K. (2004). Unmarried cohabitation and parenthood in Britain and Europe. Law & Policy, 26, 33–55.
Kiernan, K. E., & Huerta, M. C. (2008). Economic deprivation, maternal depression, parenting and children’s cognitive and emotional development in early childhood. British Journal of Sociology, 59, 783–806.
Kiernan, K. E., & Mensah, F. K. (2011). Poverty, family resources and children’s early educational attainment: The mediating role of parenting. British Educational Research Journal, 37, 317–336.
Klett-Davies, M. (2012). A critical analysis of family and relationships policies in England and Wales (1997–2011). Families, Relationships and Societies, 1, 121.
Knopp, K., Rhoades, G. K., Allen, E. S., Ritchie, L. L., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Within-and between-family associations of marital functioning and child well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79, 451–461.
Kosterman, R., Hawkins, J. D., Mason, W. A., Herrenkohl, T. I., Lengua, L. J., & McCauley, E. (2010). Assessment of behavior problems in childhood and adolescence as predictors of early adult depression. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32, 118–127.
Krishnakumar, A., & Buehler, C. (2000). Interparental conflict and parenting behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Family Relations, 49, 25–44.
Levendosky, A. A., Bogat, G. A., & Huth-Bocks, A. C. (2011). The influence of domestic violence on the development of the attachment relationship between mother and young child. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28, 512.
Levendosky, A. A., Huth-Bocks, A. C., Shapiro, D. L., & Semel, M. A. (2003). The impact of domestic violence on the maternal-child relationship and preschool-age children’s functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 17, 275.
Main, G., & Bradshaw, J. (2012). A child material deprivation index. Child Indicators Research, 5, 503–521.
Marsiglio, W., Amato, P., Day, R. D., & Lamb, M. E. (2000). Scholarship on fatherhood in the 1990s and beyond. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 1173–1191.
McKay, M. M., Harrison, M. E., Gonzales, J., Kim, L., & Quintana, E. (2002). Multiple-family groups for urban children with conduct difficulties and their families. Psychiatric Services, 53, 1467–1468.
McLoyd, V. C., Harper, C. I., & Copeland, N. L. (2001). Ethnic minority status, interparental conflict, and child adjustment. In J. H. Grych & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research, and application (pp. 98–125). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nanzer, N., Rossignol, A. S., Righetti-Veltema, M., Knauer, D., Manzano, J., & Espasa, F. P. (2012). Effects of a brief psychoanalytic intervention for perinatal depression. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 15, 259–268.
Nievar, M. A., & Luster, T. (2006). Developmental processes in African American families: An application of Mcloyd’s theoretical model. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 320–331.
Parke, R. D. (2000). Beyond white and middle class: Cultural variations in families—Assessments, processes, and policies. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 331–333.
Parke, R. D. (2004). Development in the family. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 365–399.
Pendry, P., & Adam, E. K. (2013). Child-related interparental conflict in infancy predicts child cognitive functioning in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 502–515.
Pianta, E. C. (1995). Child-parent relationship scale. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.
Pihlakoski, L., Sourander, A., Aromaa, M., Rautava, P., Helenius, H., & Sillanpää, M. (2006). The continuity of psychopathology from early childhood to preadolescence. A prospective cohort study of 3–12-year-old children. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 15, 409–417.
Plewis, I. (2007). Non-response in a birth cohort study: The case of the Millennium Cohort Study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 10, 325–334.
Powell, D. S., Fixsen, D. L., & Dunlap, G. (2003). Pathways to service utilization: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children with challenging behavior. Tampa: Center for Evidence-Based Practice.
Qi, C. H., & Kaiser, A. P. (2003). Behavior problems of preschool children from low-income families. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23, 188–216.
Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine, 90, 24–31.
Rohde, L. A. (2013). The relevance of family variables in child and adolescent mental health. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 22, 651–652.
Rust, J., Bennun, I., Crowe, M., & Golombok, S. (1990). The GRIMS. A psychometric instrument for the assessment of marital discord. Journal of Family Therapy, 12, 45–57.
Rutter, M. (1979). Protective factors in children’s responses to stress and disadvantage. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 8, 324–338.
Rutter, M. (2013). Annual research review: Resilience—Clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 474–487.
Schechter, D. S., Coates, S. W., Kaminer, T., Coots, T., Zeanah, C. H. Jr., Davies, M., et al. (2008). Distorted maternal mental representations and atypical behavior in a clinical sample of violence-exposed mothers and their toddlers. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 9, 123–147.
Schmidt, S. J., & Schimmelmann, B. G. (2015). Mechanisms of change in psychotherapy for children and adolescents: Current state, clinical implications, and methodological and conceptual recommendations for mediation analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 24, 249–253.
Schober, P. S. (2012). Paternal child care and relationship quality: A longitudinal analysis of reciprocal associations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 281–296.
Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Schermerhorn, A. C., & Cummings, E. M. (2007). Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: Evaluation of the parenting process model. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1118–1134.
Shek, D. T. L. (2000). Parental marital quality and well-being, parent-child relational quality, and Chinese adolescent adjustment. American Journal of Family Therapy, 28, 147–162.
Sokolowski, M. S., Hans, S. L., Bernstein, V. J., & Cox, S. M. (2007). Mothers’ representations of their infants and parenting behavior: Associations with personal and social-contextual variables in a high-risk sample. Infant Mental Health Journal, 28, 344–365.
Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 496–519.
Stern, D. (1995). The motherhood constellation. In D. Stern (Ed.), The motherhood constellation: A unified view of parent-infant psychotherapy (pp. 171–190). New York: Basic Books.
Thompson, R. (2005). The course and correlates of mental health care received by young children: Descriptive data from a longitudinal urban high-risk sample. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 39–50.
Thompson, R. (2009). The impact of early mental health services on the trajectory of externalizing behavioral problems in a sample of high-risk pre-adolescent children. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 16–22.
Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 574–583.
van der Valk, J. C., van den Oord, E. J. C. G., Verhulst, F. C., & Boomsma, D. I. (2003). Genetic and environmental contributions to stability and change in children’s internalizing and externalizing problems. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42, 1212–1220.
Vandewater, E. A., & Lansford, J. E. (1998). Influences of family structure and parental conflict on children’s well-being. Family Relations, 47, 323–330.
Vreeswijk, C. M., Maas, A. J., & van Bakel, H. J. (2012). Parental representations: A systematic review of the Working Model of the Child Interview. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33, 314–328.
Webster-Stratton, C., & Taylor, T. (2001). Nipping early risk factors in the bud: Preventing substance abuse, delinquency, and violence in adolescence through interventions targeted at young children (0–8 years). Prevention Science, 2, 165–192.
Westrupp, E. M., Brown, S., Woolhouse, H., Gartland, D., & Nicholson, J. M. (2018). Repeated early-life exposure to inter-parental conflict increases risk of preadolescent mental health problems. European Journal of Pediatrics, 177, 419–427.
Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. London: Penguin.
Willcutt, E. G. (2012). The prevalence of DSM-IV attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A meta-analytic review. Neurotherapeutics, 9, 490–499.
Woodward, L. J., Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. J. (2002). Romantic relationships of young people with childhood and adolescent onset antisocial behavior problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30, 231–243.
This study was funded by Postdoctoral Program 2012 of Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (CSO2015-69439-R) and by Abat Oliba University and “La Caixa” Foundation (project PROFAM).
Conflict of interest
The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
About this article
Cite this article
Garriga, A., Martínez-Lucena, J. & Moreno, A. Parents’ Relationship Quality and Children’s Externalizing Problems: The Moderating Role of Mother–Child Relations and Family Socio-demographic Background. Child Adolesc Soc Work J 36, 137–154 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-018-0558-0
- Parents’ relationship quality
- Maternal representations of mother–child relationship
- Family socio-demographic background
- Children’s externalizing problems
- UK Millennium Cohort Study