In their extensive review of the literature on family adversity, Repetti, Taylor, and Seeman (2002) offer their conception of “risky families” as those that offer low warmth and support and are neglectful. Children in such families are likely to show disruptions in emotion processing, social cognition, and regulatory systems involving stress responses, as well as poor health behaviors across the life span. Exposure to conflict and aggression, frequent concomitants of prolonged dysfunctional family relations, encourages deficits in the control and expression of emotion and social competence, disturbances in physiologic and neuroendocrine system regulation, and health threatening addictions. That is, persistent family stress may disrupt the basic homeostatic processes that are central to development by repeatedly activating important bodily systems. Drawing upon the cumulative risk concept of allostatic loading (McEwan, 1998), the biopsychosocial challenge model suggests that children growing in risky environments face a compounded “cascade of risk” for mental and physical health disorders across the life span.
In youngsters, such outcomes manifest themselves most often as behavior problems (Tremblay, Vitaro, Nagin, Pagani, & Séguin, 2003). Some behavior-based research has documented an increased risk of behavioral difficulty in association with parental conflict (Emery, 1999; 2001; Fincham, Grych, & Osborne, 1994; Grych, Fincham, Jouriles, & McDonald, 2001; Wagner, 1997), control (Barber, 1996), coercion, and counter-coercion (Rothbaum & Weisz, 1994; O'Connor, Deater-Deckard, Fulker, Rutter, & Plomin, 1998; Patterson, 2002).