In this article, Dr. Jennifer Harman discusses the importance of children in learning how to handle conflicts.
Learning how to handle conflicts is a very important developmental task for children, particularly teenagers as they start to gain greater independence from their family. The family environment is the training ground for children to learn and practice these skills.
Four conflict management styles have been studied extensively: positive problem solving, compromise, conflict engagement, and withdrawal. People may downplay conflicts as a way to avoid them (withdrawal), or actively confront and reciprocate conflicts in an escalated fashion (conflict engagement). Sometimes too much compromise and negotiation can result in anxiety and depression, unless the person feels the compromise made is better for the relationship, even if it was not what they wanted personally. Effective communication is not possible unless the communicator is able to regulate strong emotions, which is something people with insecure attachment styles have a harder time doing than those with more secure styles.
Children often observe their parents engage in what is known as a demand/withdraw pattern, such that one parent, typically the parent with less power or say in the relationship, asks or demands help from the other parent. When that parent doesn’t want to cooperate or help, they withdraw as a way to avoid conflict. This withdrawal increases conflict, and both parents often deny that they are responsible for contributing to the problem. When conflicts like this are not managed well, it can then spill over into the rest of the family system. Only direct and unambiguous forms of expression can help to address conflicts, and if children only observe avoidance, mixed messages, and other forms of poor communication, they learn that this is normal.
The way parents manage conflicts is associated with how children manage their conflicts with parents, siblings, friends, and later romantic partners. Not all children have negative responses to marital conflict. If parents are able to find cooperative ways to handle their conflict, their children ultimately will feel greater emotional security. What exactly does cooperative marital conflict mean? Cooperative marital conflict entails using behaviors and feelings that allow for the parents to continue communicating and working together, despite their differences and disagreements. The expression of warmth for the partner promotes this type of cooperation, and enables the parents to use constructive problem solving and conflict resolution strategies.
How do parents communicate warmth, even in the face of anger and frustration? Listening responsively and trying to understand each other’s perspective communicates care and respect, and expressions of love and support convey warmth. When these feelings are evident, it makes constructive problem solving easier, which include behaviors like negotiation, reasoning, apologizing, open expressions of preferences, and offering suggestions for compromise. Effective conflict resolution is the outcome of these behaviors. Research indicates that even when parents have used hostile forms of communication, if they also engage in cooperative marital conflict, their children perceive less threat in their family and feel better able to cope with problems.
So far, we have learned about how conflicts are handled privately between parents and family members. Conflict avoidance, problem solving, and negotiation may not effectively solve the conflicts that parents have; mediation may be necessary to help resolve disputes, such as asking a church leader, family therapist, or legal mediator to help reach a resolution. Should this strategy fail, other third parties can resolve conflicts using increased force and coercion, such as with arbitration and judicial decisions. These third-party resolutions entail win-lose outcomes for the parties involved, which can create additional feelings of hostility and anger. Early interventions with parents and families in crisis can help avoid such extreme and highly conflictual win-lose situations, but they will not work for everyone. Many mental health and legal professionals have argued that coercive third-party intervention, such as resolving disputes in family court, should be reserved for cases that failed to be resolved in any other way.
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