Pathways from infant exposure to marital conflict to parent-toddler role reversal.Infant Ment Health J. 2008 Jul; 29(4):297-319.IM
We know that exposure to marital conflict places infants at risk, but we know less about processes. One process may be role reversal, when a distressed parent looks to the child to meet unmet needs for comfort, intimacy, or companionship. A parent in marital conflict may be particularly prone to role reversal, which in turn adversely affects child development. The current study examined pathways from infants' exposure to marital conflict at 12 months to role reversal at 24 months. We sampled low-middle socioeconomic status (SES) families with their first child (N = 128). Independent observers assessed marital conflict (in a problem-solving task) and role reversal (in a story-telling task). We found that each parent's conflict behavior predicted the other parent's role reversal. In a direct pathway, mother's conflict behavior towards father led directly to father's role reversal with the child. In an indirect pathway, father's conflict behavior towards mother led to his withdrawal from her, which in turn led to mother's role reversal with the child. Clinical implications are discussed within a developmental psychopathology framework in terms of preventive interventions to offset the deleterious effect of marital conflict and role reversal on child development.