Understanding the Influence of Parent Beliefs on Constructive Conflict Resolution
Two kids are rolling around in the snow throwing snow in each other's faces then one child begins to cry. There is yelling down in the basement among two of your own kids and two kids from the neighborhood. Your youngest daughter is crying from the back bedroom while you’re cooking dinner. You hear fighting from the trampoline out back.
Even before you’ve entered a conflict situation like these with your kids, you have probably already started making assumptions about what’s happened and which child is to blame. Naturally, our minds turn to understanding who the victims and perpetrators are, and how to deal with the child who started the fighting, screaming, or yelling.
While it’s natural for us to begin sorting through, and either ignoring or intervening in our children’s conflicts, we behave very differently when we assume guilt before entering sibling conflict. This post’s parenting research demonstrates that when we assume guilt, we are much less likely to discuss and support our children’s sharing of perspectives and emotions with each other. Yet, when we are unsure of who’s at fault, we are much more likely to support our children in understanding each other.
In this post, we will focus on how we, as parents, respond to sibling conflict. Do we behave differently when we assume one child is at fault or if we are unsure who we should blame? We will explore Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s 2013 article, “Two Sides to Every Story?: Parents’ Attributions of Culpability and Their Interventions into Sibling Conflict” to see what parenting tendencies can help guide us in teaching our children constructive conflict resolution skills.
Recchia, Holly E., Cecilia Wainryb, and Nina Howe. 2013. “Two Sides to Every Story?: Parents’ Attributions of Culpability and Their Interventions into Sibling Conflict.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 59, no. 1 (January): 1-22.
Summary of the Research Study
This study involved 61 sibling pairs of Caucasian, Canadian children from 4-10 years old and their primary caregivers (53 mothers, 7 fathers, and 1 legal guardian). Through private and joint interviews, researchers gathered information about how parents judged who was at fault for a given sibling conflict, and how parents chose to intervene based on those judgments of guilt, innocence, or unclear blame.
This study showed that parents’ beliefs about which children are at fault in sibling conflict are linked to specific parenting choices with older and younger siblings. Researchers uncovered that when parents are unsure about which child is at fault in sibling conflict, they tend to intervene in more constructive ways to help children understand each other.
How Do Parents Typically Respond to Sibling Conflict?
With the average preschooler conflicting about eight times per hour with a sibling, parents deal with a lot of regular, everyday conflict. Given the frequency of sibling conflict, researchers have found that parents are three times more likely to ignore sibling conflict than to get involved in helping kids settle their conflicts. Yet, when parents do get involved, they usually intervene as judges, determining who’s at fault and what punishments are deserved.
Generally, parents tend to believe that there is one clear victim in sibling conflict. When parents intervene in sibling conflict, they tend to “address the child who violated a rule by supporting the victim, and they consistently uphold particular moral principles, such as condemning harm or failure to share (quoted from Ross et al, 1994, 1996).” In short, we tend to judge who is innocent and who is guilty based on our specific rules and principles.
Yet, when we do intervene, we tend to balance the power between our children. We try to make sure our younger children’s views are represented, but we do not usually do this to overpower the older sibling. Drs. Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s research suggests that: “Even though parents tended to favor their older children’s view more often, they were also almost twice as likely to elaborate on their younger child’s perspective (18).”
In addition, this research suggests that “When parents become involved [in sibling conflict], resolutions may ultimately be more equitable because parents are able to level the playing field by [representing] the younger sibling’s perspective (18).”
On the flip side, when we choose to ignore our children’s conflicts, our children often do not resolve their conflicts effectively with each other. We will briefly look at what happens when we ignore sibling conflict and what variables motivate us to get involved in sibling conflict.
What Usually Happens When Children Try to Resolve Conflicts with Siblings on Their Own?
What Motivates Parent Involvement in Sibling Conflict?
While we each have unique relationships with our children, we are highly influenced by certain social factors when deciding (1) whether to intervene and (2) how to intervene in our children’s conflicts.
Why Does It Matter How We Intervene in our Children’s Conflicts?
For preschoolers through 12-year-olds, research shows that our children benefit from parents intervening in their more intense, recurring conflicts with siblings. But, the type of parenting beliefs and actual strategies we use matter a lot. Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe have said that:
“Research suggests that parenting strategies in sibling conflict that support children’s understanding of their brother’s or sister’s perspective may be particularly effective for strengthening our children’s understanding of each other and lead to more constructive conflict resolution (p. 4).
Understanding these natural parenting tendencies in sibling conflict, Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe looked at what additional factors, such as assumption of guilt or innocence, influence our choices as parents. In short, when are we more likely to help our children listen to, empathize, and problem solve with each other?
Who do Parents Usually Blame for Sibling Conflict?
To help us understand our own personal parenting tendencies, we first review what Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe have gathered about parents general blaming tendencies in their study group:
From these general tendencies, we then look at how our beliefs about our children’s guilt, innocence, or unclear blame influence our parenting strategies.
How do we behave with sibling conflict when we assume the guilt of one child?
How do parents behave with sibling conflict when we are unsure which child is at fault?
When are we most likely to use parenting techniques that help siblings understand each other better?
Recchia, Wainryb, and Howe’s research reveals that, as parents, we are more likely to intervene with positive patterns like asking questions and helping our children listen to teach other when we are unsure of which child is a fault. This lack of clarity about who’s to blame is associated with more listening, more talking, and more sharing of emotion.
The research suggests that our beliefs about our children’s actions directly influence how we parent when our children are fighting with each other. We tend to interact much more constructively when we assume that there are multiple ways of seeing what happened in our children’s conflicts. If we can withhold judgment about who’s at fault, we are more likely to help our children discuss feelings, empathize with each other, and problem solve as equals.
In short, these small (and large) differences in how we think about and approach our children’s conflicts with each other make a big difference in how our children learn to successfully handle conflict. As parents, we can stop, take a breath, and hold back our initial assumptions to help our children learn to share their thoughts and feelings to resolve conflict more effectively with each other. Eventually, our children will be solving their conflicts on their own; they will need these perspective taking, empathizing, and problem solving skills that come with more listening and more sharing with their siblings, especially in conflict.
Child Development Milestones for 6 to 12-Year-Old Children- Understanding Skill Abilities in Constructive Conflict Resolution
A foosball table. It sounded like such a fun gift for my kids—especially my 8, 10 and 11-year-old boys. I could imagine all the fun they would have playing together until did actually play together during winter break. Rather than laughing and having fun, I heard weeping and wailing from whichever son had lost the most recent game.
After several episodes of upset, tears, and thrashing about, I wondered whether I should just give the foosball table away. Yet, rather than just avoiding all the competition, I made myself do a little research. After talking to several parents and kids in and outside of our family, I heard the same thing repeatedly: “People need to learn how to deal with these feelings of competition and conflict.” Everyone seemed to be saying that it’s natural to struggle with it, but still necessary to learn how to deal with these feelings.
Recently, I walked downstairs to the basement to find two of my boys finishing up a foosball game without too much angst. Tied with each other at 9 to 9, I could tell that each boy hoped to beat the other with just one more goal to reach the maximum of 10 on the built-in scoreboard. As the younger brother beat the older brother, my older son expressed a momentary burst of rage, but his enraged feelings soon dissipated as we briefly talked things through.
Later, as I privately discussed the foosball scenario with my younger son who had won the game, he said, “I actually get scared to win because of the reaction I’ll get from [my brother].” I told him not to shy away from winning, but that it takes a big man to learn how to lose well. We had a good laugh after I said how people need to learn how to lose well, but it’s true, isn’t it?
To teach our children how to successfully navigate all kinds of personal and social conflict situations, we will focus on the main developmental possibilities for children aged children 6-12 years old that relate to constructive conflict management. To better understand what and how to teach our children in this age range, we continue investigating insights from Dr. Sandra V. Sandy's article entitled, “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.”
Sandy, Sandra V. 2014. “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.” In Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, edited by Coleman, Peter T., Morton Deutsch, and Eric C. Marcus, 430-463. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Shifts from Parent-Centered to Peer-Centered During Middle Childhood (6-12) Years
During the middle childhood years, our children spend a lot less time with us and much more time with friends and classmates. This shift demands that our children combine their family-based identities with the school and activity-based identities they are developing outside of the home.
As parents, we deal with a lot of change ourselves as our daily influence lessens or competes with our children’s friends and classmates. Rather than force our children to obey our demands, as parents, we might try to appeal to our children’s desire to cooperate. Instead of "Do the dishes because I asked you to, " think of saying, "We all have work to do at home. Please do your part so we can all get the kitchen clean." It helps to remember that our children now have many more competing voices and values beyond the home. To understand and internalize the “rules” or our family values, they are going to need structure, but also respect for their growing independence and autonomy needs.
As our kids move into this new stage of development, we can really help our children grow socially and emotionally by respecting their expanding need for independence. Effective parents tend to focus more on discussion and explanation of cause and effect patterns (i.e., "when you yell at me, I tend to want to yell back") to help children understand and improve their behavior and strengthen their internal values and sense of morality.
Central Tasks for Social Learning Among Children Ages 6 to 12 Years Old
From 6 to 12 years old, our kids are learning to master social rules, which naturally involves conflict management. As our children move away from the imaginary play of the preschool years, they have more opportunities to learn negotiation, how to settle disagreements, and how to make and enforce rules with their peers. Our children’s conflict resolution skills build and spiral upon each other, remaining heavily influenced by our positive examples and direct instruction.
While friends and classmates take on greater influence, parents play a very important role in creating experiences for children to learn how to manage conflict effectively. Specifically, Sandy says that, “although children appear to have some level of innate capacity for certain social-emotional responses, such as empathy and perspective taking, these are frequently hit-or-miss skills unless the child is effectively tutored by an adult. As parents, we still have significant opportunities to help our children build positive conflict resolution skills that directly influence social and academic success.
Common Tendencies Among 6 to 12 Year Olds
Social and Emotional Development Milestones for Effective Conflict Resolution
While we should definitely continue helping our children develop emotional understanding, perspective taking, empathy, and self-control skills during middle childhood, Sandy suggests that we also focus on helping our children in the following four areas:
We will now explore each of these four areas highlighting Sandy’s most important points.
Creating a Self-Concept with a Positive Belief About Motivation
Sandy shares that “The sense of self acquired in early childhood must be further developed or revised to fit a new context in middle childhood” due to new social contexts focused much more on peer interactions.” Naturally, as our children mature during the elementary and middle school years, they will need to adapt their home-based identities with the roles they play at school and beyond.
From their earliest days, our children are beliefs about their abilities, which heavily influence their personal social, academic, and emotional development and choices. Some children are taught and believe that their talents and abilities are fixed, while others believe that they can change and develop themselves further through factors like effort and persistence. Children who believe that they can influence personal outcomes through effort will likely keep trying even when they have experienced failures or setbacks in trying to accomplish a goal. "So what if I didn't score a goal this season; I'm going to keep practicing throughout the summer so I can come back a better player."
As parents, we play important roles in helping children develop positive beliefs about their abilities to learn and grow. Our children usually develop their core beliefs about developing their abilities through direct and indirect instruction from us:
Confirming these ideas, Sandy says, “A parent who explains the child’s behavior by [seeming] fixed characteristics such as genes, ability, or temperament rather than [adjustable] characteristics such as knowledge, effort, or mood often stimulates the child to use similar explanations (p.449).” We are also in excellent positions to adjust difficult social circumstances that may be preventing our children from developing positive ideas and beliefs about their abilities. We should carefully consider how we can help our children who may be struggling to develop a positive belief in themselves.
Developing Positive Self-Esteem
Sandy defines self-esteem as a child’s “ability to control her own future by controlling herself and her environment (p. 450).” With increased time away from parents, our children may start focusing much more on gaining social acceptance from their friends and classmates. Our kids may become painfully aware of their lower social status among their peers. This new social awareness often leads to social comparison that can hammer a child's self-esteem. Think, "Jack's terrible at soccer. Try not to pick him until the very end." These comparisons and difficulties often happen away from home without adults being directly involved.
Yet, while peers play an important role in shaping our children's self-esteem, parents who parent authoritatively (i.e., close, affectionate relationship, but with clearly defined limits) tend to have children with higher self-esteem overall. Children with positive friendships and well-developed group entry skills tend to also have higher self-esteem. We can help children develop self-esteem from several different angles both at home, school. and out in the community.
Building Strong Social Relationships
Towards the end of this development stage, around 10 to 11, our children begin depending more on friends to define what is right and wrong. At this later stage, our children are more able to focus on maintaining harmony in their relationships rather than just seeking their own self-interest. Friendships become more central to their social lives rather than just maintaining strong family relationships.
Focusing on Cooperation Rather than Competing (with Peers and Adults)
Sandy defines cooperation as “the ability to work towards a common goal while coordinating one’s own feelings and perspective with another’s (p. 451).” Many of our children's activities both in and out of school focus on pitting one child or team against another. For our children who struggle to fit into the group and build positive friendships, they may need us to help create cooperative rather than competitive activities with others.
Generally, our children begin focusing on issues of fairness and develop a belief in strict equality. Due to this focus on equality or fairness, they may struggle to understand giving more than a “fair” share to another person who "doesn't deserve it." In short, children tend to see justice more as an exchange system (i.e., “you worked half as hard as Jack, so you should only get half as much money”). Our children want conflicts to be settled fairly, but tend to believe that conflicts are generated from one guilty party and should be resolved by that same guilty party.
To help out children see beyond their own perspectives, we can create dialogue among our conflicting children. We can help them unravel their conflicts by facilitating perspective taking, emotional understanding, and empathy, which skills maintain equal or even greater importance during the middle childhood years. Without significant adult supervision, our children will naturally need more sophisticated conflict resolution skills to work through conflicts with their friends and acquaintances independently.
Finally, we should remind ourselves about key areas of child development regarding self-control. While usually considerably more mature than preschoolers, children from ages 6 to 12 are still learning how to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behavior, usually without direct adult supervision. This regular lack of adult supervision suggests that children must learn to master the “rules” of social norms under new conditions that may be challenging.
While Sandy focuses on self-control milestones during her preschool section, the four self-control milestones she mentions remain critical to effective conflict resolution among our 6 to 12 year-old-children.
Movement: Prior to age six or seven, children have difficulty in stopping an action already in progress. (Think calling a child to dinner during a favorite show on Netflix).
Emotions: Before age four, young children have little control over the intensity of their emotions. (Think throwing a tantrum over burnt toast in the same manner as when the dog just died yesterday).
Reflection: Before age six or so, children commonly fail to engage in the reflection necessary to perform well. (Think a negative sharing episode or a failed first bike ride).
Gratification: Children under 12 often have difficulty in refusing immediate gratification to wait for a better choice later. (Think gorging on Halloween candy all at once rather than eating just one piece a day).
While our 6 to 12-year-old children have grown significantly and are quite self-sufficient in many areas, we may need to remind ourselves that our children may not yet have reached important developmental milestones. As a consequence, we may need to take much smaller steps towards the larger goal children independently resolving conflict in positive ways.
On our part, we should remember that that these social, emotional, and cognitive skills are often more influenced by experience rather than age. As parents, we can step up and coach our children in these conflict resolution development pillars: creating a self-concept with a positive belief about motivation, developing positive self-esteem, building strong social relationships, and focusing on cooperation rather than competition.
Through consistent and thoughtful parent tutoring, we can help our growing children lay the foundation for more sophisticated and complicated social, emotional, and cognitive development as they mature into adulthood. We can take our growing children’s emotional experiences seriously and help them develop more effective habits and behaviors even as their friends and classmates gain more influence in their lives.
Emily de Schweinitz Taylor