Predictors of between-family and within-family variation in parent–child relationships


Thomas G. O'Connor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center, 300 Crittenden Blvd, Rochester, NY, 14642, USA; Email:


Background:  Previous studies have found that multiple factors are associated with parent–child relationship quality, but have not distinguished potential sources of between-family and within-family variation in parent–child relationship quality.

Methods:  Approximately equal numbers of biological (non-stepfamilies), single-mother, stepfather, and complex/stepmother stepfamilies were selected from a large community study in England. The sample comprised 404 children in 171 families. Parent–child warmth/support and conflict/negativity were assessed using questionnaire and interview methods; family socio-demographic data were collected from parent report.

Results:  Multilevel model analyses indicated substantial within-family variation in parent–child relationship quality, and greater within-family variation in complex/stepmother families compared to other family types. Within-family variation was largely accounted for by differences in the siblings’ biological relatedness to the mother and father and to child-specific factors, notably aggressive behavior.

Conclusions:  The findings illustrate how research using multilevel model designs and analytic strategies may enhance our understanding of family process.