Aggression in the Toddler Can Be Traced to Hostility in the Marriage

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

It makes sense if you think about it.  Mom and Dad are angry and at each other more often than they care to admit.  In comes junior.  It may not be so easy to put aside the hurt and anger caused by the marital conflict and turn toward the tot with a warm and patient approach.

Stover and colleagues describe the “spillover” theory to explain this process.  That is, high conflict marriages can breed emotional distress in the parents that leads to decreased parenting quality.  Another interpretation of the theory is that the emotional arousal that happens in one family relationship (in this instance, marriage) can bleed into other family relationships (such as that between parent and child). 

 “But what if it’s just genetics?” you may ask.  I mean, perhaps parents with hostile and angry dispositions simply have hostile and angry children.

To answer this question, Stover et al. looked at 308 adoptive families (adoptive child, mother, and father) as well as the biological mothers.  Information from birth moms was gathered at three and six months postpartum, while information from adoptive families was gathered when the children were 18 and 27 months. 

Stover et al. didn’t look exclusively at the martial conflict, however.  They backed up the chain of events one step further to discuss perceived financial strain, which can then lead to marital stress, which can then lead to hostile parenting, which can then lead to childhood aggression.  Note that this perceived strain was independent of income; rather, it was the parents’ thoughts and emotional experience of their finances that led to the feeling of stress.

Using a variety of questionnaires, data on child aggression, marital hostility, parenting hostility, perceived financial strain, adoptive parent antisocial traits, and birth mom antisocial behavior was gathered.  Here is what they found.

Marital hostility, adoptive father and adoptive mother hostile parenting, and toddler aggression were significantly related.  Marital hostility did not directly link to toddler aggression, but rather it linked to hostile parenting, which then linked to toddler aggression. 

Throw perceived financial strain into the mix and the results revealed a significant link to marital hostility and toddler aggression.   To be clear, perceived financial strain was directly linked to toddler aggression, regardless of parenting. 

And when they looked at adoptive parent antisocial traits, there was a significant association with hostility in both the marriage and in parenting.  Interestingly, birth mother antisocial behaviors were found to be unrelated to toddler aggression.  In other words, nurture matters a whole lot here.

One could guess that negative spillover could easily continue in the absence of intervention.  So what can we do to disrupt this process, thereby decreasing the likelihood of toddler aggression?

For starters, when aggression is noted in a child it could be helpful for married parents to take an honest look at the dynamics that they have with one another.  There is the option to get support and make changes within a marriage.  Your children will thank you for it. 

The authors suggest that parents that tend toward anger and hostility can be impacted by interventions that help them change the way that they think about and respond to their child’s aggression. 

Finally, there is perceived financial strain.  In today’s economic climate, what are we to do with this piece?  Although no one can expect to be stress-free when basic needs are at stake, it may be possible to work on our thinking about and management of the stress.  Addressing the stress becomes increasingly important as we take a look at how our children are doing in the face of it.  Areas to consider can include untapped financial resources, emotional support, and ongoing self-care. 

Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Source:  Stover, C., Connell, C., Leve, L., Neiderhiser, J., Shaw, D., Scaramella, L., Conger, R., & Reiss, D. (2011). Fathering and mothering in the family system: linking marital hostility and aggression in adopted toddlers Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02510.x

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