In book: Handbook of self-regulatory processes in development: New directions and international perspectives
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Editors: K. Barrett
M Goodman, S F Waters, and R A Thompson,
University of California, Davis, CA, USA
© 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Autonomy Independence or self-reliance; the ability to make appropriate decisions for oneself by oneself.
Conflict The state in which two people, or forces, stand in opposition to each other.
Corporal punishment The deliberate use of physical force to cause the child pain for the purposes of disciplining or to deter wrongdoing.
Internalization The process whereby the child assumes personal responsibility for enacting taught values, rules, and behaviors.
Meta-analysis A statistical method that combines the results of multiple different research studies on the same or related topics to produce a stronger understanding of the overall findings.
Physical abuse Any nonaccidental physical injury inflicted on the child, or any action that results in the child’s physical impairment.
Socialization The process by which parents instill in their child societal values and norms of behavior.
Parent–offspring conflict can be defined as a state in which parents and children stand in opposition to one another. The source of conflict between parents and children can vary significantly from relatively trivial issues such as clothing choice or bedtime routine to very serious issues relating to the safety and well-being of the child. One of the principal goals of parenting is the socialization of the child – the process by which parents instill in their child the values and behaviors appropriate to a member of society. That this socialization process frequently leads to conflict if the child resists parental attempts to modify their behavior highlights several truths about parent–child conflict. To begin with, parent–child conflict is inevitable. Parents cannot engage in the socialization process without having to occasionally confront their reluctant child, and children cannot test the boundaries of their developing autonomy without occasionally frustrating their parents.
A second, and perhaps surprising, truth about parent–offspring conflict is that it is not necessarily a negative occurrence. Although we often think about conflict as something to be avoided, there is growing evidence that it may serve as a critical catalyst for children’s social cognitive development. Conflict often forces children to take another person’s perspective (in order to understand precisely what is upsetting them about the situation), to practice burgeoning negotiation skills, to understand moral and social values, and to effectively regulate their emotions in order to avoid escalating the conflict further.
A final point is that parent–offspring conflict is not a singular phenomenon. The nature and frequency of conflict changes as children develop, as do the strategies for handling conflict. A parent trying to manage their toddler’s nap schedule is going to face different challenges than a parent trying to manage their adolescent’s curfew. As children develop, they become both more receptive to recognizing and complying with their parents’ perspective on issues and more capable of negotiating and resisting their parents’ instructions. Likewise, parents’ expectations for their children’s behavior during conflict situations, as well as their perspective on their own role as a socializing agent, will change as their child develops. With that said, there also appears to be great continuity in how dyads manage conflict. When a pattern of mutually responsive, effective conflict management in which both partners are free to express their differing viewpoints and work together to resolve the issue is established early in life, it is likely to persist across childhood despite the changing nature of parent–child conflict.
Parent–child conflict is a topic that has received considerable theoretical attention. Therefore, this article begins with a brief comment on theoretical perspectives on parent–offspring conflict. In the following sections, research on the antecedents and outcomes of parent–child conflict is reviewed. We adopt a developmental perspective that focuses on the bidirectional influence of both parent and child behavior during conflict interactions. We conclude this article with a discussion of parent–child conflict that exceeds what can be considered developmentally normative – either because it occurs with greater (or less) frequency than is typically seen, or because it escalates into coercive patterns of interaction or child maltreatment. This focus on nonnormative parent–offspring conflict has particularly practical implications, as the development of successful interventions for families overwhelmed by conflict is of great importance.
Historical Perspectives on Parent–Offspring Conflict
There is a rich variety of developmental theories addressing the role of parent–offspring conflict in child development. Conflict has been proposed to play a significant role in a diverse range of developmental domains, including personality development, emotional development, moral development, and even cognitive development. Although a review of all theories that include parent–child conflict in their developmental model is outside the scope of this article, it should be appreciated that this is an issue that has long held a place in the thinking of psychologists. To give just one example of the function of parent–offspring conflict in developmental theory, we can examine the work of Viennese neurologist, Sigmund Freud. Given that Freud’s theories are arguably foundational to many current theories of human development, his focus on the role of parent–offspring conflict in shaping personality development suggests the importance of this topic. According to Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, adult personality emerges through a series of four stages (oral, anal, phallic, and genital) where children face some sort of conflict between wanting to fulfill their bodily desires and the constraints that society places on their ability to satisfy those desires. Importantly, early in life, these societal constraints come primarily from the child’s parents, and thus, Freud believed that parental behavior during these conflicts played a central role in determining whether each stage would have a positive or negative impact on that child’s developing personality.
During the toddler years, for example, Freud argued that children in the anal stage of development faced a great conflict between their desire to gratify themselves by emptying their bowels and the newly placed constraints on this behavior as their parents attempt to toilet-train them. If parents are too rigid or too lax in their application of toilet training, children could grow up to become either excessively fixated on cleanliness and organization, or slovenly. Appropriate management of conflict during toilet training, on the other hand, would allow the child to move optimally forward to the next stages of development.
Although many of Freud’s ideas, including his stages of psychosexual development, have not been empirically generative, his argument about the lasting impact of early experience, including the experience of conflict between children and their caregivers, remains fundamental to developmental science. Importantly, several neo-Freudians, including Erik Erikson, also carried forth the idea that parent–child conflict is essential to personality development in their theories. Other developmental theorists, including Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Lev Vygotsky, have likewise described parent–child conflict as an important catalyst for cognitive growth, moral development, and the growth of cultural skills. Furthermore, the research reviewed in the next section largely supports these theories about the transformative role of parent–child conflict.
A Developmental Overview of Parent–Offspring Conflict
As mentioned earlier, one of the major tasks for parents is to instill into their children their own system of values and beliefs. This is accomplished through internalization, whereby the child commits to the value or behavior and takes personal responsibility for enacting it independent of external reinforcing influences. The process of internalization is a major theme of parent–child conflict as the parent strives to shape the child’s way of thinking and acting. Traditional considerations of parent–child conflict have focused on this unilateral influence of the parent on the child. A common approach has been to examine which styles of parenting and parental discipline are best able to accomplish the parent’s objective of socialization smoothly and with the least resistance from the child. This perspective overlooks the child’s active role in parent–child interactions, and an alternative approach has emerged that considers the bidirectional influences of the parent and the child on conflict interactions. The following discussion of parent–child conflict during each phase of the child’s development employs this relational perspective and examines the contributions of both members of the parent–child dyad.
Conflict in Infancy and Toddlerhood
During the first weeks and months of life, the potential for parents to feel as though they are engaging in conflict with their infant stems from the infant’s nearly complete reliance on the parent to provide for all the needs. It is not that the infant behaves in a way that is deliberately oppositional to the care-giver, but rather that the infant’s needs often stand in opposition to that of the parent’s (e.g., the infant’s need for nighttime feedings is in conflict with the parent’s need for an uninterrupted night of sleep). The burden falls largely on the parent to minimize this felt conflict by responding appropriately to the infant’s signals regarding need states. This parental sensitivity to the infant’s rudimentary bids at communication helps establish synchronized parent–infant interactions wherein both partners are attuned to each other and responsive to communications from the other. In contrast, when parents are unable to interpret their infant’s signals accurately or meet their needs appropriately, infants become distressed. In these dyads, a cycle of interactions may develop, which is upsetting and frustrating for both members.
Over time, a pattern of synchronized parent–infant interactions builds what is called a mutually responsive orientation between parents and their children. Studies have shown that young children with a mutually responsive relationship history more readily adhere to parents’ directives with less likelihood of dispute. Across the toddler and early childhood years, these children internalize parental values and behavioral rules more firmly and with less resistance than children who lack this history of relational experience. Within the first year of the child’s life, the parent and the child begin to establish an understanding of their relationship, which will be critical to the tenor of their future disputes. For mutually responsive dyads, the understanding is that, regardless of the details of any specific conflict, both individuals are on the same team and ultimately want what is best for each other.
The child’s continual developmental achievements create new potential points of contention between the child and the parent. When children begin to crawl after 6 months of age and walk at the end of the first year, issues of safety become paramount and parents remove dangerous objects but also expect their children to comply with cautionary warnings. Children at this age also form a more sophisticated sense of the self and it emerges, in part, through assertions of autonomy. Toddlers are motivated to take nearly every opportunity to exercise their newly acquired skills, but their burgeoning abilities to fulfill their own desires (by drawing on the walls with a crayon or climbing on the table to reach an interesting object) thrust them into confrontations with parents who may hold directly opposing desires. The regularity with which parents and toddlers seem to conflict about issues such as these have made this age period a challenging one for many parents, but parent–toddler conflicts actually provide important opportunities for children’s social cognitive development.
From the toddler’s perspective, the reality that the mother does not want you to do the exact thing that you want to do highlights powerfully the difference between the mental states of yourself and another. Mental states like desires, goals, or intentions are often stated outright during the course of conflict and the emotions evoked make the situation particularly salient. The toddler has a strong personal stake in obtaining his or her desired outcome, while the close, interconnected nature of the parent–child relationship puts a premium on a positive resolution. These features make conflict a uniquely rich setting for toddlers to learn about their influence on others’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions and to develop perspective-taking skills. Toddlers carry what they learn about interpersonal interactions during conflict with their parents into other relationships. Their experiences also contribute to their ongoing understanding of the parent–child relationship – whether it is a relationship of mutual understanding or a relationship of competing goals.
Over the second and third year, children’s conflict behavior shifts from a reliance on passive noncompliance and direct defiance to negotiation, compromise, and attempts at manipulation. Parents’ behavior mirrors this change, with physical intervention giving way to negotiation and persuasion. With the child’s mastery of language, the complexion of parent–child conflict changes. Research shows that when mothers engage their toddlers with verbal strategies like compromise, bargaining, or justification during conflicts, their children demonstrate greater internalization of the mother’s directives 6 months later. This may occur because these verbal strategies provide children with an explanation of the mother’s requests. A similar link has been found between the back-and-forth with which mothers and toddlers discuss past conflicts and children’s later internalization. Reminiscing conversations about previous conflict episodes may be particularly useful for children’s developing understanding of values and appropriate behavior because they allow children some distance from the emotional intensity of the conflict as they process parents’ messages. As the infancy and toddler period comes to an end, verbal communication transforms the ways in which parents and children connect and conflict with each other. This further enriches the unique opportunities conflict provides young children to learn about themselves in relation to important others.
Conflict in Childhood
Parent–offspring conflict during the preschool and elementary school years increases in complexity, as children develop still greater skills to cooperate, negotiate with and defy their parents, as well as the ability to deliberately deceive them. Parents must also update their repertoire of conflict strategies to keep up their children’s changing abilities. One such strategy is corporal punishment. Research suggests that a majority of American children experience some form of corporal punishment as a function of parent–child conflict. The phenomenon is particularly common during the preschool years. Research studies have focused on the short-term effectiveness of this kind of discipline as well as on its more general effects on children’s well-being. Meta-analyzes show that, while corporal punishment may be effective for achieving immediate compliance from children in the given situation, it is not associated with the internalization of parental values in other settings. Furthermore, the experience of corporal punishment is associated with increased anger and frustration in children, and children whose parents frequently use corporal punishment also act more aggressively with their peers. These findings indicate that the negative consequences of corporal punishment deserve important consideration.
There are limitations to the understanding of the effects of corporal punishment on children, however. Corporal punishment refers to discipline involving mild to moderate hitting, slapping, or spanking, but the point at which physical punishment becomes physical abuse can be unclear both conceptually and in practice. Thus, the frequency or severity of the punishment that drives the association with negative child behaviors is not well understood and deserves greater empirical attention. The relationship between the two may also be explained by other contextual factors that affect both parent and child behavior (e.g., marital discord) or it may be that aggressive children elicit stronger forms of parental discipline like physical punishment than do nonaggressive children. These possibilities challenge a clear causal relationship between corporal punishment and children’s problem behaviors. There is also an argument that mild corporal punishment may be effectively used secondarily to other forms of parental discipline.
Power assertion is a form of parental discipline that involves the restriction of privileges and threats as well as corporal punishment. When used alone during the course of parent–offspring conflict, power assertion does not effectively encourage children’s internalization of values or stave off future conflict. In contrast, the use of parental induction or reasoning has been linked to desired child behaviors including compliance and internalization of values. In line with toddler research, parent–child discourse on the causes and consequences of the conflict helps transform these situations into constructive socialization experiences in which the child is made a partner in the exchange. Parents who tend to rely on induction during parent–child conflict provide opportunities for children to articulate their own perspective and engage with the parent in a discussion of values leading toward a mutually satisfying resolution. Still, induction is not suited for all conflict scenarios, and effective management of conflict with children involves parents’ accurate reading of and flexible adaptation to the situational demands of the child’s state and the specific context.
As they develop greater social cognitive sophistication, children distinguish between moral transgressions (e.g., hurting another person) and transgressions of social convention (e.g., not saying thank you), and they evaluate adults on the appropriateness of the match between the punishment and the misbehavior. Thus, an adult who punishes a child for leaving his seat without asking is viewed as being more unfair than an adult who punishes a child for hitting a classmate. At this age, children also establish nuanced expectations of their parents and their behavior within the parent–child relationship just as parents have expectations for their children. Parents adjust expectations of their children’s behavior in relation to their developmental abilities, but children also modify their expectations of parental behavior over time. A violation of expectations by either partner often results in conflict. Parents may react more strongly, escalating conflict, when the point of contention has been discussed in the past, and it is believed that the child should know better. Similarly, children may become particularly recalcitrant when they perceive their parents’ discipline as unfair or inconsistent with past behavior, or when parents regulate children’s conduct that should be the child’s decision alone (e.g., what to do during leisure time). Both parents and children take active roles in maintaining the terms of their relationship and navigating together those times when things go awry.
Conflict in Adolescence
Parent–child conflict often increases during adolescence. Youth pursue more independent and adult-like roles for themselves and these efforts toward autonomy can be especially challenging for the parent–child relationship. These problems stem, in part, from inherent qualities of the parent–child relationship. Compared to peer conflicts, the hierarchical power structure of the family tends to generate disputes involving issues of authority, control, and obedience. This may become more salient and troubling for the child during adolescence than at earlier developmental stages.
A comparison of parents’ and adolescents’ evaluations of misbehavior and parental authority sheds light on the sorts of situations that spur parent–adolescent conflict. Parents and adolescents agree on parental authority over moral and social conventional transgressions, but differences emerge with regard to the domain of personal preferences. Younger adolescents tend to perceive behaviors like sleeping late on the weekend or not cleaning up one’s room as personal preferences that do not fall under parental authority, while their parents often perceive themselves as having authority over these behaviors. The potential for conflict over these everyday issues is obvious, but this also changes with time. The parents of older adolescents more often view these kinds of behaviors as the personal preference of the adolescent. The contrast between how parents and adolescents evaluate the same set of behaviors reiterates the significance of violations of expectations for conflict. The shift in parents’ thinking that occurs with adolescent maturation, bringing the parental perspective to a greater alignment with the adolescent perspective, illustrates the critical interplay between both members of the relationship as well as the central role of developmental level in understanding conflict between parents and children.
Despite the common perception of adolescence as a highly troubled and conflictive phase, the empirical evidence for this idea is equivocal. Overall, the picture of parent–child conflict across development is one of continuity rather than discontinuity, and families that struggle with serious and destructive conflict during adolescence most likely struggled with this sort of conflict during childhood as well. While meta-analyses do reveal that the rate of parent–conflict is elevated during early adolescence, that rate falls during mid-adolescence and again during late adolescence. With regard to negative affect, there is an increase from early to mid-adolescence followed by a decrease in late adolescence. For most families, this is a period when previously established closeness and reciprocity between parents and children are maintained. When parent–adolescent conflict takes the form of a challenging discussion within a supportive, mutually responsive setting, it is associated with an increased sophistication with which adolescents understand themselves and their relationships with others. Thus, parent–adolescent conflict is often less severe than stereotypes indicate and is an important component of adolescents’ developmental transition toward adulthood.
Atypical Parent–Offspring Conflict
As has been discussed, parent–offspring conflict is a normal, and perhaps even essential part of development, spurring the child’s internalization of the parent’s rules and values, and providing a context to develop vital social cognitive skills such as perspective-taking and negotiation. And while conflict may escalate during certain periods of development (primarily during the toddler years and early adolescence), it should never become the primary style of interaction between parent and child, nor overwhelm the family environment with negative affect that is not easily resolved. Yet, for some families, this is precisely what happens, and excessive conflict becomes an agent of atypical development and a host of negative outcomes for both children and parents.
Why do certain families experience higher levels of conflict than others? Stressors appear to play a major role. For example, several recent studies have demonstrated elevated conflict in families where the child is experiencing a psychological disorder such as substance abuse or disordered eating. In these studies, conflict did not predict the onset of these problems, but rather seemed to occur as a result of them. This is especially problematic because elevated family conflict has also been shown to disrupt the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions for children’s mental health problems. The stress of ongoing angry conflict between parents also appears to contribute to increased parent–child conflict. Socioeconomic stress and lack of social resources appears to play a particularly significant role in predicting an increase in parent–child conflict that results in child maltreatment. The overall quality of the parent–child relationship may also play a role in determining rates of conflict. Insecurely attached children, for example, have been found to initiate more conflicts with their parents than do securely attached children.
Research has also demonstrated that suppressed conflict within the family environment can also be harmful. For example, children from families where conflict is avoided even when it would otherwise be appropriate, or where conflict is entirely one-sided as parents deny children any attempts to express themselves or to dissent, may be at an increased risk of peer victimization. Parent–offspring relationships must, therefore, strike the delicate balance of conflict occurring frequently enough to allow children to practice crucial conflict management skills in a safe, supportive context, but not so frequently as to interfere with the overall functioning of the family. The remainder of this section focuses on two family contexts in which conflict becomes a destructive rather than a beneficial agent of development – when conflicts become part of a coercive cycle of parent–child interactions and when child maltreatment occurs as a result of conflict.
Coercive Family Processes
In the parent–child relationship, there is a hierarchy of power that favors the parent. While children may find this power differential frustrating, especially during conflict situations, it is also developmentally appropriate and supports many of the positive outcomes of conflict such as negotiation, compromise, and placing limits on potentially risky child behavior. For certain families, however, this power hierarchy becomes reversed, with children having the upper hand during conflicts. This reversal has been referred to as coercive family processes and can have devastating effects on both the family dynamic and children’s broader social–emotional development, including their use of conflict in other relationships.
Parent–child conflict within coercive families involves mutually escalating cycles of negative behavior between parent and child. It begins in much the same way as any other conflict interaction – one member of the dyad does something that is aversive to the other. The parent, for example, may insist on the child finishing dinner before dessert. The child then responds with another aversive behavior (e.g., noncompliance), to which the parent escalates the demand (e.g., requiring the child to sit at the table until dinner is finished), to which the child is more resistant (e.g., leaving the table without permission), and the cycle continues. The conflict is resolved only when one partner gives in to the other (e.g., the parent allows the child dessert). If the parent is consistently the one to withdraw from these conflicts, he or she is negatively reinforcing their child’s aversive behavior, showing the child that escalating the conflict can lead to the child’s desired outcome, and thus is increasing the likelihood that this cycle will occur again in the future. Moreover, when the child ‘wins’ and calms down, the parent’s acquiescing is also negatively reinforced by the child’s calm compliance. Thus, coercive family interaction is mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating, and can lead to entrenched patterns of negative parent–child interaction.
Interestingly, at least in some cases, these coercive cycles appear to have their origins in infancy. Research has demonstrated that infants who are temperamentally demanding (typically those who are most reactive, negative, and persistent in their attention seeking) and who have mothers who are non-responsive demonstrate more coercive behaviors during the toddler and preschool years. Other studies have demonstrated that certain parent characteristics, such as irritability, correlate with sustained, coercive interactions. These findings support the bidirectional model of conflict we have applied throughout this article, and also reflect the significance of the earliest parent–child interactions in setting up patterns of conflict.
As coercive interactions continue throughout early childhood, the normative balance of power favoring the parent shifts, as children ‘win’ more and more conflict interactions. With time, parents may even stop setting clear and appropriate limits for their children’s behavior, in order to avoid further conflict, and develop other kinds of unconstructive parenting practices (e.g., expecting hostility from their offspring before it occurs). The impact of this coercive cycle on children’s development is far-reaching. To begin with, children may gain a precocious and inappropriate sense of control and power over their interpersonal relationships. With time, this can extend beyond the parent–child relationship and impact how they interact with peers, teachers, and other important social partners. Unfortunately, many of the other positive aspects of social cognitive development that are spurred on by appropriately resolved parent–child conflict can also be delayed. Deficits in perspective-taking, empathy, or negotiation and compromise may also contribute to one of those most troubling outcomes of coercive family processes – increased childhood aggression. Children who lack other strategies for ending conflict may choose to escalate their aversive behavior to physical aggression in order to fulfill their goals in the interaction.
Children from coercive families are more likely to bully and victimize their peers, and may be particularly likely to be ineffectual aggressors – children who engage in protracted, aggressive conflict but typically wind up losing the fight. Aggressive behavior appears to be both a consequence of coercive family processes and a catalyst for it, with aggressive children being found to exhibit more frequent episodes of noncompliance with parental demands, to persist in aversive behavior once a conflict has begun, and to be the one to initiate conflict more often than their nonaggressive peers. Unsurprisingly, coercive family processes are also associated with increased rates of externalizing problems, and, as children reach adolescence, become associated with delinquency and even criminal behavior.
Distinguishing between appropriate corporal punishment and physical punishment that constitutes child abuse is a difficult task. One distinction is that physical abuse results in nonaccidental physical injury to the child, while corporal punishment may cause temporary discomfort, but should not result in lasting harm. What is clear, however, is that parent–offspring conflict plays an important role in several different types of child maltreatment, including physical abuse.
When research has focused on parent–offspring conflict and physical abuse, several patterns of findings emerge. To begin with, abuse frequently seems to result from poor parental management of conflict. Parents often report losing control during the course of a conflict episode and resorting to physical violence. This escalation appears to be profoundly related to coercive family processes. Abusive parents are more likely to report perceiving their children as holding the majority of power during conflict situations, and thus feel the need to reassert their dominance through physical means. Furthermore, aggressive behavior in children has also been found to provoke aggression in parents. What may distinguish abusive families from those characterized by the coercive family processes described previously is that in an abusive family, the cycle of escalating aversive behaviors is terminated, not by the parent abandoning the conflict, but instead by responding with physical aggression against their child.
As with all investigations of parent–child conflict, a developmental perspective is important. As children develop, the eliciting events for abuse may change. During the infant and toddler years, the majority of conflict-to-abuse incidents revolve around the child’s need for nurturance (e.g., conflict around feeding routines) or the toddler’s inability to regulate their behavior in response to parental instructions (such as during toilet training). In middle childhood, abusive incidents more often revolve around the child’s refusal to comply with social standards, such as lying to their parents. As would be anticipated, as adolescents gain both more freedom and more responsibility, abuse during this developmental period tends to stem from conflicts around obedience and compliance. Rates of abuse also appear to increase as children get older, with more than 25% of reported abuse cases concerning adolescents. Indeed, abusive patterns of interaction may emerge for the first time during adolescence as parents find the balance of power shifting and their previous strategies for discipline and conflict management ineffective against their newly autonomous adolescents.
What becomes clear from even this brief review of parent–offspring conflict is that it is a topic seemingly full of contradictions. Conflict, in general, appears to be a vital catalyst of children’s social cognitive development, but too much (or poorly managed) conflict within the family context can quickly come to hinder these developmental processes. How parents and children perceive and manage conflict is subject to both great continuity and great change as children develop from helpless infants to independent adolescents. For example, previously held views that certain periods of development, such as adolescence, are highly conflictual receives only equivocal evidence from the empirical literature. Instead it appears that, while overall rates of conflict may increase somewhat early in adolescence, families which have a long history of successfully managing conflict will weather this period unscathed.
Another thing that is clear from this review is that much future work is needed. The positive role that parent–offspring conflict can play in development is a topic that has received insufficient empirical investigation, despite long being a cornerstone of developmental theory. Research on parent–offspring conflict is critical for our understanding of both typical and atypical child development, and deserves greater consideration than it has received thus far.
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