Skip to main content Accessibility help

The role of parental marital discord in the etiology of externalizing problems during childhood and adolescence

  • Amber M. Jarnecke (a1), Susan C. South (a1), Irene J. Elkins (a2), Robert F. Krueger (a2), Erin C. Tully (a3) and William G. Iacono (a2)...


Previous research has established that parental marital discord is associated with higher levels of offspring externalizing behaviors, but it is unclear how parental relationship functioning is associated with the genetic and environmental variance on a factor of externalizing problems. Thus, the current study assessed how parental marital discord moderates genetic and environmental variance on offspring externalizing problems at two different ages: childhood and late adolescence. That is, the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on offspring externalizing at ages 11 and 17 was examined as a function of parental marital discord. Consistent with a diathesis–stress model of psychopathology, it was hypothesized that with increasing marital discord, genetic influences on externalizing would be more pronounced. Rather, results indicated that for the 11-year-old sample, nonshared environmental influences were greater when parental marital discord was low, and comparatively, shared environmental influences contributed more to the variance in externalizing problems when parental marital discord was high. No moderation was found for the 17-year-old cohort. In contrast to studies that do not find an effect of the shared environment, these results provide evidence that the common rearing environment has an impact on externalizing problems in preadolescent children.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Amber M. Jarnecke, Purdue University, 703 Third Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907; E-mail:


Hide All

This research was supported by Grant R01 AA009367 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Grants R01 DA038065 and R37 DA005147 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.



Hide All
Ablow, J. C., Measelle, J. R., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2009). Linking marital conflict and children's adjustment: The role of young children's perceptions. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 485499.
Achenbach, T. M. (1966). The classification of children's psychiatric symptoms: A factor-analytic study. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80, 137.
Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2001). Manual for ASEBA school-age forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families.
Akaike, H. (1987). Factor analysis and AIC. Psychometrika, 52, 317332.
Amato, P. R., & Booth, A. (2001). The legacy of parents’ marital discord: Consequences for children's marital quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 627638.
American Psychiatric Association. (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Armstrong, T. D., & Costello, E. (2002). Community studies on adolescent substance use, abuse, or dependence and psychiatric comorbidity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 12241239.
Bonham, V. L., Warshauer-Baker, E., & Collins, F. S. (2005). Race and ethnicity in the genome era: The complexity of the constructs. American Psychologist, 60, 915.
Burt, S. A., Wildey, M. N., & Klump, K. L. (2015). The quality of the interparental relationship does not moderate the etiology of child conduct problems. Psychological Medicine, 45, 319332.
Button, T. M., Lau, J. F., Maughan, B. B., & Eley, T. C. (2008). Parental punitive discipline, negative life events and gene-environment interplay in the development of externalizing behavior. Psychological Medicine, 38, 2939.
Button, T. M., Stallings, M. C., Rhee, S., Corley, R. P., Boardman, J. D., & Hewitt, J. K. (2009). Perceived peer delinquency and the genetic predisposition for substance dependence vulnerability. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 100, 18.
Cadoret, R. J., Cain, C. A., & Crowe, R. R. (1983). Evidence for gene-environment interaction in the development of adolescent antisocial behavior. Behavior Genetics, 13, 301310.
Clark, T. T., Doyle, O., & Clincy, A. (2013). Age of first cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use among U.S. Biracial/ethnic youth: A population-based study. Addictive Behaviors, 38, 24502454.
Conners, C. K. (1969). Conners’ Teacher Rating Scale. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa.
Depner, C. E., Leino, E. V., & Chun, A. (1992). Interparental conflict and child adjustment: A decade review and meta-analysis. Family & Conciliation Courts Review, 30, 323341.
Dick, D. M., Aliev, F., Wang, J. C., Grucza, R. A., Schuckit, M., Kuperman, S., … Goate, A. (2008). Using dimensional models of externalizing psychopathology to aid in gene identification. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65, 310318.
Dick, D. M., Viken, R., Purcell, S., Kaprio, J., Pulkkinen, L., & Rose, R. J. (2007). Parental monitoring moderates the importance of genetic and environmental influences on adolescent smoking. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 213218.
Dodge, K. A., Bierman, K. L., Coie, J. D., Greenberg, M. T., Lochman, J. E., McMahon, R. J., & Pinderhughes, E. E. (2015). Impact of early intervention on psychopathology, crime, and well-being at age 25. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172, 5970.
D'Onofrio, B. M., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R. E., Slutske, W. S., Heath, A. C., Madden, P. A., & Martin, N. G. (2005). A genetically informed study of marital instability and its association with offspring psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114, 570586.
Fauber, R., Forehand, R., Thomas, A. M., & Wierson, M. (1990). A mediational model of the impact of marital conflict on adolescent adjustment in intact and divorced families: The role of disrupted parenting. Child Development, 61, 11121123.
Gerard, J. M., Krishnakumar, A., & Buehler, C. (2006). Marital conflict, parent-child relations, and youth maladjustment: A longitudinal investigation of spillover effects. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 951975.
Gibson, H. B. (1967). Self-reported delinquency among schoolboys, and their attitudes to the police. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 6, 168173.
Grych, J. H., Seid, M., & Fincham, F. D. (1992). Assessing marital conflict from the child's perspective: The children's perception of Interparental Conflict Scale. Child Development, 63, 558572.
Hanscombe, K. B., Trzaskowski, M., Haworth, C. M. A., Davis, O. S. P., Dale, P. S., & Plomin, R. (2012). Socioeconomic status (SES) and children's intelligence (IQ): In a UK-representative sample SES moderates the environmental, not genetic, effect on IQ. PLOS ONE, 7, 116.
Harden, K., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R. E., Slutske, W. S., D'Onofrio, B. M., Heath, A. C., & Martin, N. G. (2007). Marital conflict and conduct problems in children of twins. Child Development, 78, 118.
Hicks, B. M., Blonigen, D. M., Kramer, M. D., Krueger, R. F., Patrick, C. J., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2007). Gender differences and developmental change in externalizing disorders from late adolescence to early adulthood: A longitudinal twin study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 433447.
Hicks, B. M., DiRago, A. C., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2009). Gene-environment interplay in internalizing disorders: Consistent findings across six environmental risk factors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 13091317.
Hicks, B. M., Foster, K. T., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2013). Genetic and environmental influences on the familial transmission of externalizing disorders in adoptive and twin offspring. JAMA Psychiatry, 70, 10761083.
Hicks, B. M., Krueger, R. F., lacono, W. G., McGue, M., & Patrick, C. J. (2004). Family transmission and heritability of externalizing disorders: A twin-family study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 61, 922928.
Hicks, B. M., South, S. C., DiRago, A. C., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2009). Environmental adversity and increasing genetic risk for externalizing disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 640648.
Hu, L., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling, 6, 155.
Iacono, W. G., Carlson, S. R., Taylor, J., Elkins, I. J., & McGue, M. (1999). Behavioral disinhibition and the development of substance-use disorders: Findings from the Minnesota Twin Family Study. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 869900.
Jacobson, N. S., & Christensen, A. (1998). Acceptance and change in couple therapy: A therapist's guide to transforming relationships. New York: Norton.
Jacobson, N. S., & Margolin, G. (1979). Marital therapy: Strategies based on social learning and behavioral exchange principles. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Jarnecke, A. M., & South, S. C. (2014). Genetic and environmental influences on alcohol use problems: Moderation by romantic partner support, but not family or friend support. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 38, 367375.
Katz, L. F., & Gottman, J. M. (1993). Patterns of marital conflict predict children's internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Developmental Psychology, 29, 940950.
Kouros, C. D., Cummings, E., & Davies, P. T. (2010). Early trajectories of interparental conflict and externalizing problems as predictors of social competence in preadolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 22, 527537.
Krueger, R. F. (1999). The structure of common mental disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 56, 921926.
Krueger, R. F., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Silva, P. A. (1998). The structure and stability of common mental disorders (DSM-III-R): A longitudinal-epidemiological study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107, 216227.
Krueger, R. F., Hicks, B. M., Patrick, C. J., Carlson, S. R., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2002). Etiological connections among substance dependence, antisocial behavior, and personality: Modeling the externalizing spectrum. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 411424.
Krueger, R. F., South, S. C. Johnson, W., & Iacono, W. (2008). The heritability of personality is not always 50%: Gene-environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting. Journal of Personality, 76, 14851522.
Lam, C. B., McHale, S. M., & Crouter, A. C. (2012). Parent-child shared time from middle childhood to late adolescence: Developmental course and adjustment correlates. Child Development, 83, 20892103.
Mahoney, A., Jouriles, E. N., & Scavone, J. (1997). Marital adjustment, marital discord over childrearing, and child behavior problems: Moderating effects of child age. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26, 415423.
Mason, W. A., Hitch, J. E., Kosterman, R., McCarty, C. A., Herrenkohl, T. I., & Hawkins, J. D. (2010). Growth in adolescent delinquency and alcohol use in relation to young adult crime, alcohol use disorders, and risky sex: A comparison of youth from low- versus middle-income backgrounds. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 13771385.
Mason, W. A., & Windle, M. (2001). Family, religious, school and peer influences on adolescent alcohol use: A longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 62, 4453.
McGue, M., & Bouchard, T. J. (1984). Quality of twin data for the effects of age and sex. Behavior Genetics, 14, 325343.
McHale, S. M., Freitag, M. K., Crouter, A. C., & Bartko, W. (1991). Connections between dimensions of marital quality and school-age children's adjustment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 12, 117.
Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (1998–2012). Mplus users guide. Los Angeles: Author.
Neale, M. C., Boker, S. M., Xie, G., & Maes, H. H. (2003). Mx: Statistical modeling (6th ed.) [Computer software]. Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University.
Purcell, S. (2002). Variance components models for gene-environment interaction in twin analysis. Twin Research, 5, 554571.
Raine, A. (2002). Biosocial studies of antisocial and violent behavior in children and adults: A review. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30, 311326.
Reich, W., & Welner, Z. (1988). Diagnostic Interview for Children and Adolescents—Revised: DSM-III-R version (DICA-R). St. Louis, MO: Washington University.
Rutter, M. A. (1967). Children's behavior questionnaire for completion by teachers: Preliminary findings. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 111.
Rutter, M. A., Kim-Cohen, J., & Maughan, B. (2006). Continuities and discontinuities in psychopathology between childhood and adult life. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 276295.
Salvatore, J. E., Aliev, F., Bucholz, K., Agrawal, A., Hesselbrock, V., Hesselbrock, M., … Dick, D. M. (2015). Polygenic risk for externalizing disorders: Gene-by-development and gene-by-environment effects in adolescents and young adults. Clinical Psychological Science, 3, 189201.
Smith, A. R., Chein, J., & Steinberg, L. (2013). Impact of socio-emotional context, brain development, and pubertal maturation on adolescent risk-taking. Hormones and Behavior, 64, 323332.
South, S. C., Krueger, R. F., & Iacono, W. G. (2009). Factorial invariance of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale across gender. Psychological Assessment, 21, 622628.
Spanier, G. B. (1976). Measuring dyadic adjustment: New scales for assessing the quality of marriage and similar dyads. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38, 1528.
Sturge-Apple, M. L., Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. (2006). Impact of hostility and withdrawal in interparental conflict on parental emotional unavailability and children's adjustment difficulties. Child Development, 77, 16231641.
Tabachnick, B. G., & Fidell, L. S. (2007). Using multivariate statistics (5th ed.). London: Pearson.
Trucco, E. M., Colder, C. R., Bowker, J. C., & Wieczorek, W. F. (2011). Interpersonal goals and susceptibility to peer influence: Risk factors for intentions to initiate substance use during early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 31, 526547.
Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 160164.
Tuvblad, C., Grann, M., & Lichtenstein, P. (2006). Heritability for adolescent antisocial behavior differs with socioeconomic status: Gene-environment interaction. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 734743.
van der Valk, J. C., van den Oord, E. G., Verhulst, F. C., & Boomsma, D. I. (2003). Genetic and environmental contributions to stability and change in children's internalizing and externalizing problems. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42, 12121220.
Vollebergh, W. M., Iedema, J., Bijl, R. V., de Graaf, R., Smit, F., & Ormel, J. (2001). The structure and stability of common mental disorders: The NEMESIS Study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58, 597603.
Wymbs, B. T., Pelham, W. E., Gnagy, E. M., & Molina, B. S. G. (2008). Mother and adolescent reports of interparental discord among parents of adolescents with and without attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 16, 2941.
Young, S. E., Stallings, M. C., Corley, R. P., Krauter, K. S., & Hewitt, J. K. (2000). Genetic and environmental influences on behavioral disinhibition. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 96, 684695.
Zografos, K. N., & Pérez, M. A. (2014). Health disparities and social determinants of health: Implications for health education. In Pérez, M. A. & Luquis, R. R. (Eds.), Cultural competence in health education and health promotion (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed