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.