Repeated early-life exposure to inter-parental conflict increases risk of preadolescent mental health problems

Elizabeth M. Westrupp, Stephanie Brown, Hannah Woolhouse, Deirdre Gartland, Jan M. Nicholson

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10 Citations (Scopus)


This study investigated the association between inter-parental conflict at a single occasion, or repeated over early childhood, and children’s internalizing and externalizing problems at 10–11 years; and examined potential mechanisms via social risk, maternal mental health, and parenting. Data were five time points from the Baby cohort of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (N = 3696, recruited in 2004). Verbal or physical inter-parental conflict was measured at 0–1, 2–3, 4–5, and 6–7 years. Internalizing and externalizing problems (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire) were measured via mother-, father-, teacher-, and child-report at 10–11 years. A series of regression models accounted for social risk at 0–1 years, parenting, and maternal psychological distress at 8–9 years. Physical and verbal inter-parental conflict (reported by 16 and 33% of mothers, respectively) consistently predicted mother-, father-, and child-reported externalizing and internalizing problems, and teacher-reported externalizing (but not internalizing) problems (adjusted regression coefficients [β] = 0.4–1.1). Repeated compared to single report of verbal conflict was associated with more behavior problems (adjusted mean = 0.8–1.1 compared to 0.4–0.6). Conclusion: Children are sensitive to inter-parental conflict, with long-term negative effects for child mental health even when reported at one time point within the first 6 years of life.What is Known:• Studies of children born prior to 1990 show that children exposed to verbal conflict or severe forms of family violence are at greater risk of mental health problems.What is New:• Physical and verbal inter-parental conflict reported once or at multiple time points over the first 6 years of life was associated with externalizing and internalizing problems reported by mothers, fathers, children, and teachers.• Associations between inter-parental conflict and child problems were not explained by family social risk, maternal mental health, or parenting.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)419-427
Number of pages9
JournalEuropean Journal of Pediatrics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished or Issued - 1 Mar 2018


  • Child behavior problems
  • Inter-parental conflict
  • Longitudinal
  • Mental health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health

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