AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
A large body of literature indicates that children and adolescents exposed to frequent and intense interparental conflict (henceforth called IPC) are at risk for the development of a variety of adjustment problems (see Cummings and Davies, 1994, 2002, for reviews). Specifically, researchers have found that children and adolescents exposed to frequent and intense IPC are at risk for internalizing and externalizing problems (Cummings et al., 1994; Katz and Gottman, 1997), poor peer relations (Katz and Gottman, 1997; Stocker and Youngblade, 1999), heightened emotional reactivity (Cummings et al., 2002; Davies et al., 2002; El-Sheikh, 1997), and negative representations of family relationships and interpersonal conflict (Davies et al., 2002; Grych. 1998; Grych et al., 2002). However, it is unlikely that exposure to IPC affects all individuals in the same manner. Researchers increasingly have been interested in identifying individuals who are particularly vulnerable to IPC exposure and investigating the processes underlying the effects of IPC exposure (Davies and Windle, 2001; El-Sheikh et al., 2001).
To obtain insight regarding the developmental impact of IPC exposure, researchers have used a variety of methodologies to assess children's and adolescents' immediate reactions to IPC in the home as well as to simulated conflict. Reactions to IPC in the home have been assessed by the use of parent- and child-reports of children's reactions to actual IPC (Cummings et al., 2002; Davies et al., 2002) as well as children's reported reactions to hypothetical IPC (Grych et al., 2002). In analogue studies, children and adolescents are exposed to simulated conflict between adult couples they do not know, and their reactions are assessed using self-reports, observed emotional behavior, or physiological measures (Ballard et al., 1993; Cummings et al., 1985; Davies et al. 1999; El-Sheikh, 1997; Grych, 1998). Studies indicate that children and adolescents become angry, sad, or distressed in response to angry interactions and report negative social-cognitive reactions (e.g., expectations that the conflict would escalate; Cummings et al., 1985; Davies et al., 1999; Grych, 1998; Grych and Fincham, 1993).
Interestingly, it is believed that the effects of exposure to others' negative interactions accumulate over time, sensitizing individuals to interpersonal conflict (Davies et al., 1999; Davies and Cummings, 1994; Grych and Fincham, 1990). Davies and Cummings (1994) contend that exposure to destructive IPC (i.e., involving high emotional expression and hostility) undermines children's sense of emotional security, resulting in increases in negative emotional arousal and negative expectations about subsequent conflicts. Consistent with the emotional security hypothesis, Grych and Fincham (1990) hypothesize that children's previous exposure to destructive IPC fosters expectations of future negativity between their parents, which lead to increases in negative emotional reactions to subsequent conflicts. Davies et al. (1999) note that sensitization to IPC may have some adaptive value as increases in negative emotional and social-cognitive reactions to conflict may alert children to potential threats in the environment and may temporarily provide them with a limited feeling of emotional security in the context of interpersonal conflict, but any beneficial functions of sensitization are likely to be temporary as the long-term effect of sensitization to conflict is an increased risk for maladjustment.
Analogue designs have been particularly useful for examining exposure to IPC and sensitization to subsequent conflict. Because inducing IPC that may become hostile and intense in front of children and adolescents in lab settings raises ethical concerns (Cummings and Wilson, 1999), analogue procedures involving scripts and actors are often used and provide a valuable direction for examining the effects of interadult conflict on children and adolescents. Specifically, analogue methods allow for the specification and control of various dimensions of conflict that can be presented in the same way across all participants and for the recording of children's and adolescents' immediate reactions to conflict in a controlled setting (Cummings and Davies, 2002). In addition to their utility in the context of IPC, analogue designs have been useful for measuring reactivity in a variety of contexts such as college students' reactivity during conflict discussions (Gerin et al., 1992), victimized women's physiological reactions to scripts depicting past abuse experiences (Orr et al., 1998), mothers' reactions to videotaped motherchild interactions (Dix et al., 1990), and young children's reactions to hypothetical sibling conflict (Roberts et al., 1992).
To test sensitization using analogue designs, repeated exposure to simulated conflict or reactions to simulated conflict as a function of IPC exposure have been examined. Repeated exposure to others' negative interactions in the laboratory results in increased emotional reactivity during exposure to subsequent conflict (Cummings et al., 1985; Davies et al., 1999). In addition, children from high-conflict homes experience more negative emotional reactions to simulated conflict (Ballard et al., 1993; Cummings et al., 1989; El-Sheikh, 1997) and report more negative beliefs about simulated conflict (e.g., "the disagreement will get worse"; Grych, 1998; O'Brien et al., 1991) than do children exposed to low levels of IPC.
It is important to note that sensitization primarily occurs when individuals are exposed to destructive conflict over time. Davies et al. (1999) found that children and adolescents exposed to a series of destructive (i.e., involving high emotional expression and escalation of hostility) simulated conflicts in a lab setting reported more negative emotional (e.g., sadness) and social-cognitive (e.g., expectations about future problems for the couple) reactions to subsequent conflict than did those who were exposed to constructive (i.e., involving minimal emotional expression and low hostility) conflicts. Moreover, school-aged boys exposed to physical aggression between parents report more arousal in response to simulated conflict than boys exposed to verbal aggression between parents (O'Brien et al., 1991) and young adults' reports of their parents' level of aggressive IPC are positively related to their negative expectations about outcomes of simulated conflict (e.g., "I think she'll end up smacking him"; Duggan et al., 2001). Thus, although IPC can vary on many dimensions, intensity as well as frequency of conflict seems to be particularly important to consider when examining IPC exposure and sensitization. Furthermore, although interparental violence constitutes destructive IPC, it is important to note that destructive conflict can occur without violence and that destructive IPC that is hostile and intense but does not include violence contributes to developmental outcomes (e.g., El-Sheikh et al., 2001; Katz and Gottman, 1997).
Examining relations among individuals' perceived exposure to IPC while growing up and their reactions to simulated conflict during late adolescence can provide further insight into sensitization. By late adolescence, individuals have witnessed numerous interactions between their parents across many years; thus, their perceptions of exposure to IPC likely reflect a relatively extensive history. Additionally, as romantic relationships become more common, significant, and mature across adolescence (Laursen and Jensen-Campbell, 1999), conflict between couples may become increasingly salient and important. Furthermore, although family experiences can be modified by significant extrafamilial relationship experiences (e.g., in peer or romantic relationships), family influences likely remain evident even into adulthood (Feeney and Noller, 1996). Thus, the effects of IPC on the emotional and social-cognitive reactions of those who witness conflict may be particularly evident during late adolescence. Despite the importance of late adolescence, little is known about the impact IPC exposure has on adolescents as the majority of research pertaining to IPC has focused on younger ages (Parke and Buriel, 1998). When examining the effects of IPC in late adolescence, it may be useful to use self-reports of individuals' perceptions of IPC exposure because it has been hypothesized that, regardless of accuracy, individuals' perceptions of IPC contribute to their "working models" of relationships (Harold et al., 1997).
Although individuals exposed to high levels of IPC while growing up likely will be sensitized to conflict during late adolescence, it is unlikely that exposure to IPC affects all individuals in the same way. Indeed, Cummings and Davies (2002) assert that identifying intrapersonal moderators of the impact of IPC on social development is an important task. Specifically, it has been suggested that individual differences in responding following exposure to conflict might be due, in part, to temperamental differences in emotionality and regulatory abilities (Cummings, 1987; Grych and Fincham, 1990). Emotionality includes the intensity with which individuals typically experience emotions (Larsen and Diener, 1987) as well as the frequency and quantity of experienced emotions (Watson et al., 1988), whereas emotion regulation involves the modulation of internal feeling states and emotion-related physiological processes (Eisenberg et al., 2000). Attentional control is viewed as an important component of emotion regulation because arousal can be decreased as attention is directed away from distressing stimuli and directed to less arousing aspects of the situation (Derryberry and Rothbart, 1988; Windle and Lerner, 1986). It is important to note that although emotionality and regulation are theoretically and empirically distinct, they often are related (Eisenberg et al., 2000).
In a heuristic model proposed by Eisenberg and Fabes (1992), various aspects of social functioning are expected to vary as a function of emotionality, particularly negative emotionality (Eisenberg et al., 2000), and regulation. Eisenberg and colleagues hypothesized that individuals who are high in negative emotionality or who have difficulty regulating their emotional arousal are likely to become easily overaroused when they witness others' negative …