What’s so Bad About Competitive Coparenting? Family-Level Predictors of Children’s Externalizing Symptoms


Competitive coparenting, defined as one parent undermining the other in the presence of the child or jockeying for control of the child, has been identified as a robust predictor of externalizing symptoms in children. But in addition to its core definition, competitive coparenting is also likely to involve a lack of cooperative coparenting, displays of negative affectivity, and family conflict, making it unclear what drives the relation between competitive coparenting and children’s externalizing symptoms. Thus, the present study aimed to examine the extent to which each aspect of family negativity contributes to externalizing symptoms in children, and in particular, whether the core definition of competitive coparenting (parental triangulation of the child) predicts their later externalizing symptoms above and beyond effects due to other types of negative family interaction. Both parents and their first-born child (N = 108 families) were observed in triadic family interactions when children were 24 months old, and children’s externalizing symptoms were rated by their teachers when children were 7 years old. Family interactions were coded at the triadic level for competitive coparenting, cooperative coparenting, negative affect, and conflict. First-order correlations indicated that competitive coparenting, negative affectivity, and family conflict within the triad were all associated with each other and with children’s externalizing symptoms. When all entered into a regression, however, competitive coparenting remained the sole predictor of later externalizing symptoms in children. Results suggest that the core definition of competitive coparenting predicts children’s externalizing symptoms beyond the general presence in family interaction of low cooperation, negative emotionality, and conflict.

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The authors gratefully acknowledge Tonya Mann, MGStrategy, Philadelphia, PA, USA, in coding the observational data used in the present study. This research was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation (SRB-9212990125), the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health (Grant 3332), and the University of Texas at Austin.

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Correspondence to Sarah E. Murphy.

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Murphy, S.E., Jacobvitz, D.B. & Hazen, N.L. What’s so Bad About Competitive Coparenting? Family-Level Predictors of Children’s Externalizing Symptoms. J Child Fam Stud 25, 1684–1690 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0321-5

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  • Competitive coparenting
  • Externalizing symptoms
  • Negative affectivity
  • Conflict
  • Family systems