How does parental work-family conflict impact on children’s mental health?
Andisheh Vahedi, Isabel Krug and Elizabeth Westrupp, Australia, January 2020
This short article describes how Australian parents’ difficulties when juggling work and family responsibilities (referred to as ‘work-family conflict’) influence their relationship with their partner, their interactions with their children, and subsequently their children’s mental health across childhood and adolescence.
The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), a large representative sample of Australian children and their families. The main findings revealed that parents’ work-family conflict resulted in more verbal arguments with their partner, and more negative interactions with their children over a 10-year period. Further, children who were exposed to a higher level of conflict in their home environment were more likely to go on to develop emotional and behavioural problems.
This article is adapted from a recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, titled ‘Crossover of parents’ work-family conflict to family functioning and child mental health‘ (Vahedi, Krug, & Westrupp, 2019).
Work-family conflict and its influence on families
Work-family conflict occurs when work responsibilities interfere with family commitments, or when family commitments interfere with work responsibilities (Byron, 2005). Work-family conflict appears to have adverse short-term influences on families. For example, it has been found to be associated with:
- child emotional and behavioural problems (Dinh et al., 2017; Strazdins, Obrien, Lucas, & Rodgers, 2013; Vieira et al., 2016)
- poor parental mental health (Westrupp, et al., 2016)
- poor parenting (Cooklin et al., 2015)
- poor quality couple relationship (Cooklin et al., 2015)
- parental burnout (i.e. exhaustion and disengagement from work) (Innstrand et al., 2008)
- poor parent-child interactions. (Dinh et al., 2017;).
The current study
The current study aimed to investigate the long-term impacts of work-family conflict on family functioning and child mental health by examining the following questions:
- What are the long-term influences of work-family conflict on family functioning and child mental health?
- Do fathers’ and mothers’ work-family conflicts influence their own and their partners’ behaviour at home?
- Which parent’s work-family conflict poses a more persistent influence on child mental health (i.e. mothers’ or fathers’)?
The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). A sample of 3,061 Australian children and their parents were surveyed six times over a 10-year period, starting from 2004 (i.e. when children were 4-5 years old) through to 2014 (i.e. when children were 14-15 years old). The sample was limited to working parents who were employed part-time, full-time, or were on leave from paid work and those who were married or in a cohabiting relationship.
- Mothers and fathers who experienced high work-family conflict were more likely to experience ‘inter-parental conflict’ (i.e. verbal arguments) with their partner, over time.
- Mothers and fathers who experienced high work-family conflict were more likely to have negative and angry interactions with their children (i.e. parenting irritability), over time.
- Within a family, each parent’s experience of work-family conflict had long-term influences on their own and the other parent’s behaviour at home, including interactions with their partner and children.
- Mothers’ and fathers’ work-family conflict predicted increased levels of child emotional and behavioural problems, explained in large part by parenting irritability (not by inter-parental conflict).
- Mothers’ work-family conflict had a persistent negative influence on child emotional and behavioural problems across childhood and adolescence, while fathers’ work-family conflict had negative influences mainly during adolescence.
These findings suggest support for the following:
- Policies that encourage a family-friendly working environment for both mothers and fathers. For example, policies that enable and encourage fathers to use paid parental leave and offer more flexible working arrangements are likely to increase fathers’ physical and emotional support for their partner. This may in turn assist mothers to adopt a more optimal and manageable balance between their work and family roles.
- Strategies that promote increased public awareness of the potential ongoing negative effects of work-family conflict on parents’ interactions with their children and partner, and consequently on their children’s long-term mental health.
- A role for practitioners in providing parenting interventions and supporting parents to develop strategies for managing work-family conflict.
- Future research that explores the associations between work-family conflict, family functioning and child mental health in single-earner, single-parent, and disadvantaged families. Additional research that explores the above associations in other cultures and countries is also needed.
- Finally, the current study found parenting irritability (but not inter-parental conflict) to be an explaining factor between work-family conflict and child mental health. Given that previous research has found direct associations between inter-parental conflict and poor parenting (Krishnakumar & Buehler, 2000), future research should investigate an extended model (i.e. the potential influences of work-family conflict on inter-parental conflict, inter-parental conflict on parenting irritability, and parenting irritability on child mental health).
Byron, K. (2005). A meta-analytic review of work-family conflict and its antecedents. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67, 169-198.
Cooklin, A. R., Westrupp, E. M., Strazdins, L., Giallo, R., Martin, A., & Nicholson, J. M. (2015). Mothers’ work-family conflict and enrichment: Associations with parenting quality and couple relationship. Child: Care, Health & Development, 41, 266-277.
Dinh, H., Cooklin, A. R., Leach, L. S., Westrupp, E. M., Nicholson, J. M., & Strazdins, L. (2017). Parents’ transitions into and out of work-family conflict and children’s mental health: Longitudinal influence via family functioning. Social Science & Medicine, 194, 42-50.
Krishnakumar, A., & Buehler, C. (2000). Interparental conflict and parenting behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Family Relations, 49, 25–44.
Innstrand, S. T., Langballe, E. M., Espnes, G. A., Falkum, E., & Aasland, O. G. (2008). Positive and negative work–family interaction and burnout: A longitudinal study of reciprocal relations. Work & Stress, 22, 1-15.
Strazdins, L., Obrien, L. V., Lucas, N., & Rodgers, B. (2013). Combining work and family: Rewards or risks for children’s mental health? Social Science & Medicine, 87, 99-107.
Vahedi, A., Krug, I., & Westrupp, E. M. (2019). Crossover of parents’ work-family conflict to family functioning and child mental health. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 62, 38-49.