Long-term studies evaluating threat appraisals as an intervening variable linking interparental conflict (IPC) and internalizing problems are lacking, as are longitudinal studies evaluating the role of the broader family context in these models.
Guided by the cognitive-contextual framework, this study followed 225 adolescents (53% females) and their families from age 11 into young adulthood (age 19.6) to evaluate the long-term implications of IPC and threat appraisals for young adult internalizing symptoms. First, a long-term mediation model revealed that increases in IPC from age 11 to 14 (but not initial levels) best accounted for adolescent threat appraisals at age 14. In turn, threat appraisals mediated the association between IPC and young adult (age 19.6) internalizing problems. Second, the family climate—defined as high levels of cohesion and organization—moderated the relation between IPC and threat appraisals. Adolescents in families that experienced declines in positive family climate and increasing IPC had the highest threat appraisals; however, families that maintained (or increased in) positive family climate were protective against increasing IPC.
Interestingly, the combination of decreasing IPC and decreasing positive family climate corresponded with the lowest threat appraisals in the sample, contrary to expectations. This finding seems consistent with a family disengagement perspective which may be less threatening to adolescents but may confer risk for other problem outcomes.
This study underscores the importance of IPC and threat appraisals during adolescence, and offers new insights into the role of the family climate in protecting against escalating IPC for young adult internalizing risk.