Single-family households are widespread throughout the country. Much research has been dedicated to understanding the impact this type of family structure has on children. Studies have focused on how divorce, parental involvement, maternal warmth, attachment, and conflict can affect a child’s emotional regulation and behaviors. Researchers have examined the link between single-parent households, childhood behavior, and socioeconomic status, as well as race and gender. However, few studies have looked at these factors in a narrow enough light to determine how conflict and parental warmth affect African-American adolescents’ externalizing behaviors. To address this gap, Nada M. Goodrum of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led a study that examined 194 African-American mother/teen pairs.
The groups reported their levels of conflict as well parental conflict (between the mother and nonresidential co-parent), parental warmth, and externalizing behaviors. Goodrum found that the children with the highest levels of externalizing behaviors reported the most mother/co-parent conflict. This suggests that there is a spillover effect that occurs when parents, even noncohabitating parents, fight. Goodrum also discovered that co-parent warmth, or lack thereof, contributed to youth externalizing behaviors.
The finding that the co-parent warmth was more strongly associated with child externalizing problems than maternal warmth was interesting and suggests that parental conflict could result in less co-parent presence, which could lead to emotional distance between the parent and child. This dynamic could result in less opportunities for the nonresidential co-parent to demonstrate warmth and develop a relationship with the child. Because very few fathers were identified in this study, the findings should be considered in light of that limitation. Also, Goodrum believes future research should examine whether the association between parental warmth and child externalizing behavior is bidirectional, such that anger, aggression, and other externalizing behaviors could decrease the warmth demonstrated by the parent as much as parental detachment could exacerbate externalizing behaviors. Goodrum added, “Our ﬁndings suggest that health care professionals working with African American youth evidencing or at risk for externalizing problems should carefully assess the structure and functioning of each family.”
Goodrum, N. M., Jones, D. J., Kincaid, C. Y., Cuellar, J., Parent, J. M. (2012). Youth externalizing problems in African American single-mother families: A culturally relevant model. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029421
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