Many parents find themselves locked in perpetual conflict with a teenage son or daughter. But new research suggests parents shouldn’t be too quick to blame these conflicts on the trials of adolescence. Instead, a team of Dutch researchers has found that the way adolescents resolve conflicts with their parents can actually be traced to the way parents resolve conflicts with each other.
In their study, recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers administered a set of questionnaires to roughly three hundred two-parent Dutch families, all of whom included a young adolescent. The questionnaires measured how frequently participants practiced three different conflict resolution styles: conflict engagement (e.g., “getting furious and losing my temper,” “letting myself go and saying things I do not really mean”); withdrawal (e.g., “not listening anymore”); or positive problem solving, which involves making compromises (e.g., “negotiating and trying to find a solution that is mutually acceptable”) and effective communication (e.g., “sitting down and discussing the differences of opinion”). Parents answered the questionnaires with regard to conflicts with their spouse; children considered their conflicts with their parents. The researchers then waited two years before questioning the families again.
The results showed that couples who practiced positive problem solving with each other had children who demonstrated these positive skills toward their parents two years down the line. The researchers also found that adolescents’ conflict resolution styles at the first time period did not predict how well parents resolved their own conflicts two years later. This suggests that kids don’t have the same kinds of long-term effects on their parents’ relationship as the parents’ relationship has on their kids.
While previous research has often focused on how negative behaviors are transmitted from one generation to the next, this study is the first to show that children emulate the positive conflict resolution styles practiced between parents. “For parents, it is an important lesson to handle conflicts better for the sake of their children, and for themselves,” write the researchers.