A new study has teased out competitive coparenting of 2-year-olds as a key suspect in generating angry and defiant behaviour in 7-year-old children.

Competitive coparenting occurs when both parents are actively involved in parenting but undermine each other in the presence of the child and jockey for control. The parents may be openly competing to be the ‘favourite’; they may contradict each other in front of the child; they may try to create an alliance with the child against the other parent.

Competitive coparenting often occurs alongside other negative things – family conflict, a lack of cooperation between parents, tension and distress. A great deal of research links poor behaviour in children with all of these negative family characteristics. So the researchers asked whether poor behaviour by children is related to all of these types of negative family functioning, or rather to competitive coparenting itself.

The researchers, led by Sarah Murphy at the University of Texas at Austin, observed 108 families at two points – when the child was 2 years old and when the child was 7 years old. At 2 years, they put the child together with both parents and watched them cope with a 25-minute exercise designed to create mild time pressure and to require parental collaboration and discussion. The parents had to feed and dress the child and complete a card-sorting activity that required discussion about childrearing; if the parents got through all that before the 25 minutes was up, they had to help the child with a mildly challenging peg-sorting activity.

Then, at 7 years, the researchers asked all the child’s teachers to rate the child’s behaviour in relation to lack of attention, hyperactivity and disobedience.

The researchers found that, in their sample, competitive coparenting did indeed often go hand in hand with family conflict and a negative atmosphere. However, they found that if they controlled for those things, competitive coparenting remained as the sole predictor of worse behaviour in children 5 years later.

The researchers concluded that competitive coparenting, where one parent tries to pit the child against the other parent, is particularly detrimental to children’s social and emotional development.

Header photo: Sander van der Wel. Creative Commons.


Murphy SE, Jacobvitz DB & Hazen NL (2016), What’s so bad about competitive coparenting? Family-level predictors of children’s externalizing symptoms, Journal of Child and Family Studies 25