Children's Conflict Appraisals, Temperamental Negative Affectivity, Affect and Arousal in the Context of Interparental Conflict.
Children’s affect and physiological arousal when exposed to interparental conflict have been identified as prominent mechanisms connecting their experience of parental discord and adjustment outcomes (Buehler et al., 2007; Davies et al., 2007). However, how children feel emotionally and physiologically can vary greatly depending on their intrapersonal attributes, such as a temperamental tendency toward negative affect or perceptions of the conflict (Hentges et al., 2015; Weldon et al., 2019). Furthermore, conflict perceptions and temperament can work in conjunction to influence children’s affect and physiology when observing marital conflict (Grych & Fincham, 1990). More specifically, high levels of negative conflict perceptions can interact with high levels of temperamental negative affectivity to predict especially high negative emotions and physiological arousal. The current study tested this hypothesis by inviting 115 married couples to discuss an area of difficulty in their relationship while their child (aged 9-11) was present. Right after the conversation, children reported their current emotional and perceived physiological states. In addition, in an earlier lab visit, mothers reported their child’s temperamental tendency toward anger, fear, or sadness; children reported their perceptions of the interparental conflict (i.e., perceived threat, self-blame, triangulation). The results showed that temperamental fearfulness and sadness moderated some of the relationships between children’s conflict perceptions and their affect and physiology. Specifically, higher levels of perceived threat and self-blame predicted greater negative affect more strongly as temperamental fearfulness increased. In addition, higher levels of triangulation predicted greater perceived arousal more strongly as temperamental sadness decreased. These findings suggested that temperament can act as a filter through which children’s appraisals of their parents’ conflict translate into emotions and physiology when exposed to an interparental dispute. Fearful children, because of their hypersensitivity to threat, may be particularly prone to the negative impact of marital discord. Additionally, high-sad children may already be so aroused from watching the parental argument that they are less impacted by the arousing effect of triangulation. These findings offer valuable information regarding the interplay between various factors that link children’s exposure to interparental conflict and their subsequent emotional and physiological states.